Driving through the City of Lawrence it’s almost impossible not to notice the homeless population, whether they are pan-handling on the corners of the busiest intersections, or hassling people for a cigarette or a dollar outside local establishments.
Unfortunately, most people turn their heads and pretend not to see the human carnage of the destitute, the addicted, and the mentally ill who wander the streets with nobody to turn to.
Driving through the streets of Lawrence every night, I can estimate there are at least 200 homeless people sleeping on the streets. Some have rigged make-shift tents along the railroad tracks, at Den Rock Park, along the banks of the Merrimack, or in the woods along the Spicket and Shawsheen Rivers.
That doesn’t include the 50-55 people sleeping at the Daybreak Homeless Shelter on Winter Street which is at capacity every night and severely underfunded.
Daybreak operates on grants and donations but, surprisingly the City of Lawrence contributes zero dollars to fund Daybreak and has shown no interest in doing so in the near future.
Despite platitudes and promises made by state officials at election time, Daybreak continually struggles for funding to service the homeless. They come in and tour the facility, creating photo-ops to make it look like they are dedicated to helping Daybreak, but once the election is over, Carina Pappalardo has to run private fundraisers, and beg those same state officials for what amounts to pennies out of the state budget.
And she never gets what she really needs, which, right now is another building to occupy. She gets zero help from the Lawrence City Council, zero help from the Mayor’s office, and with the exception of Diana DiZoglio, very little help from state officials.
What makes that so surprising is that every single elected official in Lawrence runs for office promising to be the voice of the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the downtrodden. They bloviate on and on to the media about how the Democrats are for the little guy. Yet, while most of the elected officials in the city talk a good game, talk is really all they do.
IMPORTING THE HOMELESS
There are very few people making any effort at all to help the homeless in Lawrence, and with all the billions of dollars that have been pumped into the city over the last few decades, you might be surprised to learn that none of it has gone to solving the issue of homelessness, addiction, and the mentally ill who walk the streets.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera holds the belief that the more services the city provides for the homeless, the more homeless people will be attracted to Lawrence from surrounding communities.
And he’s not wrong about that.
A large number of homeless people in Lawrence are not originally from Lawrence. In the last six months alone, I have met homeless people from Swampscott, Revere, Methuen, Andover, Londonderry, Salem-NH, Boston, Worcester, Rhode Island, and Vermont. That’s because those communities provide no services to their own residents who become homeless.
When Methuen or Andover residents who paid taxes all their lives hit hard times and suddenly become homeless, the elected officials in those towns have zero services for their own residents. So, where does a Methuen (or Andover, or North Andover) resident go when they find themselves destitute? They go to Lawrence, because the myth is that this is where the services are.
One of the homeless success stories from the Daybreak Shelter that we highlighted in a Valley Patriot two years ago was originally from Chicago. He said he made his way to Lawrence because he heard there were a lot of services for the homeless here. Newsflash…. there aren’t.
But, while Mayor Rivera has been resistant, maybe even hostile to the idea of spending any city money on the homeless issue, he did hire a homeless coordinator to work in his office in order to identify homeless people who are actually from Lawrence. Anil DeCosta’s job is to target that subset of the homeless population and try to match up their needs with some kind of government service or program, with the goal to get them long term assistance… somewhere else.
Rivera also had the police clean out the criminal enterprise that was “tent city” under the central bridge, where drugs, prostitution, and hundreds of dirty needles, made it impossible for families to enjoy the very expensive Pemberton Park on the banks of the Merrimack.
SO WHO ARE THE DOERS? WHO HELPS THESE PEOPLE?
For starters, The Greater Lawrence Psychological Center funds the Daybreak Homeless Shelter. It is the only “wet shelter” in the area (one of two in the state) that accepts homeless individuals who may have been drinking or on some kind of drug when they show up looking for a place to sleep.
This is a very difficult population to service because addiction is usually accompanied with mental illness, behavioral and social problems, or psychological disorientation. Putting 55 people with a laundry list of social problems all together in one place at the same time presents some unique challenges for the workers and volunteers who staff the shelter.
Daybreak is at capacity (55 beds) almost every single night, even in the summer. People who sleep at Daybreak get breakfast in the morning, can do their laundry, but have to leave early in the morning. Most go out and pan-handle to get enough money to buy drugs, wander the streets, or try to find some other place to go.
SOME GO TO HOUSE OF MERCY
On Bay State Road off of Water Street in Lawrence is a place called House of Mercy.
It’s a place the homeless in Lawrence can go during the day where they can talk to someone about their problems, get clothing, take a shower, even get a haircut. It’s kind of like day care for the homeless.
House of Mercy provides spiritual counseling and church services too, and even serve the homeless lunch. Most of the people who show up at House of Mercy are the hardest of the homeless to service. They are generally a subset of the homeless population that has been on the streets the longest, many are HIV positive, and most of them have completely given up on trying to have any other kind of lifestyle.
“We do it because they are still people,” Carrie Wieland said to me on one of my visits to House of Mercy last month.
“They have big problems, problems too big for us to solve. It’s a very difficult group to work with, but we are here to help them now, to help them today. That’s what most of them need; a shower, a meal, someone to talk to … today.
“We aren’t trying to save the world, we just want to give them a little dignity and hope that some of them will see there’s a better way if they want to turn their lives around.” House of mercy also has a mobile health clinic that visits once or twice a week to service the medical needs of those who come looking for help.
THE MOVEMENT FAMILY
Each night there are between 6-10 homeless people who sleep at the Buckley Garage bus stop on Common Street, whether it’s 75 degrees or 2 degrees outside.
Michael Gorman (25) of Methuen is a member of a group called TMF or “The Movement Family”. He says the group was formed back in 2011. “We have a meeting once a week, every Thursday night, and come up with ideas on how to help this population,” Gorman told me.
TMF sets up tables and chairs at the Buckley Garage every Wednesday night at 9pm and serves a full family style meal to the people who sleep there. I asked him how it got started.
“We were meeting and we said, what about setting up something for the people who are living at the bus station? What about talking to them and learning about them, and why they are out here. We wanted to try and make it deeper than just bringing food. You know, we want to see if we can teach them a life lesson. So we will bring a white board sometimes and we will do goal setting with the homeless people.”
“[We will ask] who’s thinking about going to detox? Who’s thinking about going to get a bed at a homeless shelter, and try to work with them to get them out of here. We don’t’ want them to be comfortable here. We want to get them out of here.”
Gorman says the food they serve on Wednesday nights are donated by individuals “so we can serve a family meal, talk to them, interact, many of them are struggling from addiction. I enjoy it.”
“We come, bring tables and chairs, we serve food donated by differed people and places and interact with them. Many of them are struggling with addiction.” Gorman says he enjoys what his “Movement Family” does because he says, that the homeless are still people and those people have basic and immediate human needs. “Why wouldn’t we want to help with that given that many of us in “the Movement Family” are or have struggled with these same kinds of issues in the past. We know what it’s like.”
“Many people in TMF are struggling with different life situations themselves,” Gorman added, saying that some in his group are high school drop outs, “some have had to deal with incarceration, people struggle with self-harm” and a myriad of other psychological and personal issues. “But we are a very diverse family, we also have some great people at TMF who are actually going for their bachelor’s degree and come from great families. We stick together and trying to make the world a better place, but we know it’s an uphill battle.”
When I interviewed Gorman he was serving his fifth weekly meal at the garage. He said it would be great if local restaurants or eateries would pitch in and donate a dinner once a week. “If just one store or restaurant could donate a meal that would be huge for these people. They are hungry. They need food, and there are a lot of people who have the means to help but the problem is trying to get the word out. Most don’t understand the severity of the problem.”
He says he has received some help from Carrie and the crew from House of Mercy and Sue Lauren from “Blanket Me” a non-profit in North Andover.
Gorman says the group can be contacted on their Facebook page and welcomes any help people or businesses can give. “It’s all about spreading the word that these are human beings. Regardless of why they are out here, if they are hungry we should be doing what we can to feed them.”
FIRE AT DAYBREAK
While there are other individuals and small groups in the city who are trying to help the homeless, it’s a myth that Lawrence is filled with city and state services for people with nowhere to go. The fact is, there really isn’t much our government officials have done (or will do) and the business community has done even less.
Last month a kitchen fire burned the Sunday dinner that was supposed to feed the 55 occupants at the Daybreak Shelter. I was live on Facebook at the time and our Valley Patriot readers began making calls on their own to local food establishments asking if they might be interested in donating some pizzas so that Daybreak could feed the homeless that night. Brianna Lent took it upon herself to call a pizza chain in Lawrence and Methuen asking for help, but both pizza shops said no.
COR UNUM TO THE RESCUE
Saint Patrick’s Church in Lawrence funds a full-service restaurant for the homeless and even feeds people who are not homeless but having financial difficulties. They do so with no money from the city or any other government agency. We reached out to Cor Unum the night of the Daybreak fire and found Ricky Simard, one of the volunteers who was just getting into his car to leave after closing up for the night. When I told him what happened at Daybreak he didn’t give it a second thought. He took his keys, opened the doors back up, walked me to the kitchen, and offered everything they had left in the freezer. It was truly inspiring.
VETERANS NORTHEAST OUTREACH (VNOC)
There is no greater organization in New England than VNOC. What once started with a couple of Marines putting out coffee for fellow veterans at a store front on Essex Street 20 years ago has blossomed into a full-service facility for homeless veterans and their families. Run by John Ratka and Randy Carter, VNOC has dozens of housing units for veterans, provides food, clothing, job assistance, job training, programs for addicts, health care, and will even help veterans navigate the maze of VA paperwork to help them get benefits they may not even know they are entitled to. In the last 4 weeks Randy and John have taken two individuals who were living on the streets of Lawrence – one addicted to heroin, the other an alcoholic with mild dementia – and put them into their own apartment, stocked the fridge and cabinets with food, gave them clothing in their own sizes, and has been able to secure a real job for one of them.
“We are located in Haverhill and we have a lot to offer any veteran we can convince to get to our doors,” Randy Carter says.
“With leadership from guys like John Ratka and the staff at VNOC, we go out and talk to the homeless and try to find out which among them have served their country. One individual brought to our attention by The Valley Patriot was a Vietnam Veteran who served on an aircraft carrier and was sleeping at a bus station every night. He had no idea how many benefits were available for him but once we could convince him to come in the doors, we were able to meet his needs in no time.”
LOOKING AWAY MAKES THE PROBLEM WORSE
While so many people look away when they see the homeless on the streets of Lawrence – or anywhere for that matter – the few who are actually tackling this issue are making a huge difference because they understand that ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. In fact, refusing to help those most in need drive them to commit crimes, take drugs, and puts them on a more destructive path than they are already on.
Granted, some of them are difficult. Some are ungrateful, some are just assholes who have no interest in making their lives better and are looking for good hearted people to exploit so they can get their next heroin fix. Some have issues with violence and have criminal records. Some even refuse the help offered by the few who reach out to help.
But at the heart of almost every homeless story I’ve heard so far, is the issue of opioid addiction.
And with so few rehab facilities, so few beds, so little government interest in tackling the opioid crisis, and so few resources for people who actually want the help, the homeless population in Lawrence is only going to continue to grow.
But they are still people.
And it’s up to us to make sure our representatives in government, the business community, and residents of this area are aware of the problem, but moreover, what they can do to help, even in small ways.
Because, when someone is really hungry, when someone is really cold in the winter, when people have basic human needs not being fulfilled, it is inhuman to shrug our shoulders and say “hey they caused their own problems, they can’t be helped.”