Homelessness Fight is an Opportunity for Dialogue

By: Joe DAmore – Nov. 2018

TMF Volunteer Jershawn Brown gives hair cuts to the homeless at the Buckley Garage in Lawrence during TMF family dinner
TMF Volunteer Jershawn Brown gives hair cuts to the homeless at the Buckley Garage in Lawrence during TMF family dinner

Recently news reports – and explosive social media message decried Mayor Daniel Rivera, apparent uniliteral decisions regarding the use of the Buckley Bus Station as a staging area for feeding homeless people. He ordered that homeless people vacate the station and that a humanitarian group no longer offer dinner and referral services on Wednesday nights. This has perpetuated a flurry of social media posts, largely denouncing the decision. This has also encouraged many advocates for the homeless, largely teenagers related to the group TMF, The Movement Family lead by leader Michael Gorman to hold a candle light vigil in protest.

This painful episode in the evolving story of homelessness in Lawrence continues to reveal the division in the community on how to deal with homelessness in one of the poorest cities in the Commonwealth Last year, a sprawling “ tent city “ of over 60 people at the Casey Bridge, adjacent to the Pemberton State Park parking lot was disbanded. Today, only remnants of a thriving homelessness encampment remain punctuated with stern “No Trespassing signs”. The police are under order to enforce these two measures.
The Mayor has advocated for years on several themes. One of them is that it is not humane for people to live under bridges and inside cardboard boxes on park benches and in train stations. Secondly, Lawrence has an impressive network of resources maintained by several non- profit organizations that operate soup kitchens, emergency shelters, transitional and subsidized housing and a vibrant range of community clinic services delivered through outreaches. They can be relied on for addressing homelessness but within limits.

If you are an unsheltered homeless person in Lawrence you will have available hot meals every day in one of three locations, a place to shower at least twice a week and even though very limited opportunities; emergency shelter beds and transitional housing.

In addition to the professional state and non-profit services there are numerous advocate groups, faith based organization, grass roots and even individuals like Mr. Gorman that really make an impact in not only stabilizing people who live outdoors, but enabling those willing and able to find pathways to escape the streets and get into “ programs”. These range from medical services, mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, access to affordable housing. Mr. Gorman and is group in just a few short months of operations can claim many success stories.

The situation is that emotions are running very high on all sides but when you take a closer look everyone has a viable point that can be defended. The Mayor must maintain order and public safety and guide the city to solving its homelessness problems through available agencies.

This also means that all agencies have a finite level of resources and that therefore surrounding communities should be co-participants in addressing the issue. Individuals, organizations and groups of individuals – whether formal or not- should be given access to deliver food, clothing and hope too to those that most at risk

The problems in Lawrence stem primarily from every city and town that shares a border with it has conditions that make it impossible to be an unsheltered homeless person within its own borders. You cannot live under a bridge, in a car or abandoned building and get away with it for long in just about every municipality in Merrimack Valley with the exceptions of Lowell and to a very limited degree in Haverhill.

There are municipal ordinances, public policy and police enforcement measures that criminalize homelessness. When this happens those that succumb to whatever has lead them to be homeless; whether physical, psychological, social or financial will literally migrate to communities that will enable them to stay and can avail themselves to helpful resources.

When the Casey Bridge was at full capacity with 60 or so people there were people living there that came from all over New England. Lawrence has a unique problem of maintaining OPEN BORDERS to migrant homeless populations. And when the Mayor complains that other communities should “do their part”, he is implying that the key to solving homelessness is a regionalized approach where every community contributes. Even my little town of Groveland can contribute. Surely, with close to a third of our land mass being woodlands if anybody pitched a tent to live in the natural, they would be promptly removed by police upon discovery. But yet, Groveland, as most communities in Merrimack Valley, has done little to expand affordable housing units –which it is compelled to do by state law—and to achieve 10% affordable housing stock.

Homeless people need homes and even though operating soup kitchens and emergency shelters should not be expected in most communities, there are numerous resources, state grants and zoning guidelines available for communities to start moving the needle towards building the aggregate level of affordable housing for the poorest citizens. If this was done collectively a significant amount of pressure would be removed from communities like Lawrence.

This situation that has occurred and as reported this week in Lawrence is a golden opportunity for both sides at odds with each other to sit down and talk instead of shouting at each other or putting “ lines-in-the-sand” through the media. This is especially important when both opposing sides each have very compelling positions. And the Mayor in particular should pick up the phone and call his counterparts in the surrounding cities and towns and initiate a serious effort to discuss how homelessness can be a shared responsibility. Now is the time to expand the conversation and slow the concentrated migration of homeless into a few communities dotted throughout the state.

Joe D’Amore
Founder, Merrimack Valley Hope Mission ◊