More affordable places to live in are will help relieve the growing problem of homelessness in and around Watertown, said participants in the forum called “The Many Faces of Homelessness.”
The community forum, held at Belmont’s St. Joseph’s Parish, was organized by the TriCommunity Coalition to end Homelessness – a joint effort by groups in Watertown, Belmont and Waltham.
Watertown has a good stock of affordable housing, with 745 affordable units under the Watertown Housing Coalition, said executive director Brian Costello. It can take several years to get into the housing, Costello said, and and getting worse.
“We used to have 65-70 vacancies a year, but last year we had 11 family vacancies,” Costello said.
Keynote speaker Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, shared her experience about being homeless as a child. Her mother left her father because of mental illness, and had to find a place for her two children.
Hayes said she was lucky that her mother had family to crash with temporarily in New Jersey and a college friend who let her use a floor in a triple-decker in Belmont that allowed her to get a job and get back on her feet.
Her rent was $300 a month, and Hayes said it would have gone for about $600 a market rates at the time. Today, the same apartment would be at least $2,000 a month.
Many families don’t have a place to turn in emergencies. Waltham Police Sgt. Bob Scarpone serves as chairman of the Waltham Area Homeless Assistance Coalition, said that a hotel in Waltham houses homeless families “temporarily.” There are 106 rooms and more than 200 children live their with their mother and/or father.
This costs the state of Massachusetts $80 a day per room, Scarpone said. The hotel costs the state about $2.9 million a year.
“I personally feel this could be spent better finding a people a home rather than putting them in a hotel and being miserable,” Scarpone said.
Waltham is home to many of the local homeless support groups, such as Bristol Lodge Shelters (which also runs a soup kitchen), Mary’s House family shelter, and the hotel. A shelter for youth – Y2Y Harvard Square – recently opened in Cambridge. In Watertown, people can get help from the Social Services Resource Specialist, Danielle DeMoss at 617-744-9585 or email her at Danielle_DeMoss@waysideyouth.org.
The hotels are supposed to be temporary solutions, but Ann Copeman, Homeless Student Representative with the Waltham Public Schools, said the wait can be long.
“There are not enough rooms at the homeless shelters,” Copeman said. “Some families have been at the hotel for over two years.”
Watertown State Rep. Jonathan Hecht thanked the 15o or so people who came out for the forum, and encouraged them to raise awareness about homelessness.
“It is a tough economy and an incredibly harsh housing market,” Hecht said. “On the other hand it is an incredibly humane area.”
Hecht said the state House of Representatives has called for an increase in funding for homeless services in the recently released House Ways & Means Budget.
Belmont State Rep. Dave Rogers encouraged people to speak with their elected officials.
“A lot of members don’t hear about these issues as much,” Rogers said.
State Sen. Will Brownsberger, who represents Watertown and Belmont, said there are many causes for homelessness – mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, but the price of housing has contributed to the problem.
“That three-family house that Libby lived in, and the two-family house I grew up in would not be legal in Belmont’s zoning anymore,” Brownsberger said. “We need to do what we can to build affordable housing.”
See more of Watertown News’ coverage of homelessness: