For Those on Brink of Homelessness, a Lifeline
FITCHBURG -- The panhandler, braving fierce winds and subzero windchills, was standing earlier this week at one of the many intersections in town asking for help of any kind.
He wasn’t looking for money to maintain his drug habit, which is a real issue, but he was hoping he’d appeal to enough generous people to put a little food in his refrigerator.
But his real terror, said Kevin MacLean, director of homeless services for Our Father’s House, was the possibility of losing his place to live since his rent was due on March 1.
MacLean saw the man, jumped out of the truck and began gently questioning the man as to why he was out there asking the public for money.
That was when the man, who MacLean asked to remain unidentified, told MacLean of his fear.
“He could pay part of it, just not the whole thing,” said MacLean.
With that information, MacLean, who has been working with the area’s homeless for nine years, sprang into action.
He explained to the man that he had access to funds that could be used in emergency situations just like his.
A few hours later, using a combination of funds provided by the federal government using an Emergency Solution Grant, a Community Development Block Grant awarded Our Father’s House last year, and additional resources from the United Way of Central Massachusetts, MacLean gave the man’s landlord assurance that he would have his entire rent for March.
But, said MacLean, his intervention efforts are not just about providing emergency financial assistance, but discussing how someone facing the prospect of losing their housing got into the situation.
For that, he sits down with each person or family and educates them on how important it is to budget their money.
“If you’re working, you should be making sure you put aside money each week to pay rent and not wait until the last week,” he said.
He stressed those people who are awarded grants to stay in their residences must make significant changes in their budgeting to prevent an eviction.
“The tough time is teaching them budgeting. This is not a revolving door. Families and individuals are only allowed emergency help once every three years,” he said.
When asked what people who are facing homelessness should do first, he said they should reach out to family, friends and even the church community.
“It takes someone to give them a chance,” he said.
But too often, MacLean said, calls for help go unheard and an individual (who may be working or collecting Social Security) falls through the cracks and ends up on the street.
This, said MacLean, is when he can step in. And he has been having success.
Last July, he said, Fitchburg provided him access to $8,000 to be used for homelessness prevention.
Breaking the money up into $500 allotments, he has kept 15 families and individuals from being evicted from their homes.
It comes, however, with a few strings attached.
“I’ll help them if they want to help themselves,” he said.
But it is a process.
“I can only do it if the person is willing to work with me on rent,” said MacLean.
One of the challenges he faces, especially when using federal dollars, is the amount of paperwork that must be completed for the Emergency Solution Grant, which is used primarily to get homeless individuals and families back into housing.
That, he said, takes valuable time away from his efforts to stay connected to the city’s homeless and soon-to-be homeless to prevent homelessness.
With the CDBG grant, just one form is filled out, and just recently he was also granted over $10,000 from the United Way of Central Mass. that will have the same criteria.
With those financial tools, MacLean is working to prevent homelessness and continue efforts to find help for the approximately 60 individuals who were identified on Jan. 30 during the annual point-in-time homelessness count.
For those who need help, MacLean said he can be called at 978-855-5184.
As for the man who was panhandling to help pay his rent, MacLean said motorists won’t see him again at a city intersection asking for money.