Honoring Leaders in Fight Against Youth Homelessness
LOWELL — A diverse group of local leaders gathered in the parlor of Bachand Hall on Pawtucket Street one day last week when their jovial banter suddenly turned to a serious topic: youth homelessness.
Among the group were elected officials, Roman Catholic sisters, an employee of the Department of Children and Families and the leader of the Merrimack Valley’s largest charitable foundation.
All will be recognized Thursday evening for their work ending youth homelessness during Community Teamwork Inc.’s annual Spring Celebration: Leading the Way Home.
“Our honorees this year have all made a significant impact in ensuring that young adults who are experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness have a safe place to call home,” CTI Executive Director Karen Frederick said.
The Sisters of Charity of Ottawa hosted the impromptu gathering at their convent located across the street from the O’Donnell Funeral Home. Fifteen years ago, the sisters opened the doors of the convent to young women who had aged out of foster care but still needed a home.
Along with Eric Cousineau, a social worker at DCF, the sisters are among the 2019 honorees. As Cousineau tells the story, “They came to us. They came downtown to DCF and said, ‘We have a large house. Do you need help with housing?’”
Cousineau has worked with the sisters ever since.
Besides the Sisters and Cousineau, also being recognized for their efforts to reduce homelessness are Mayor William Samaras, City Councilor and state Sen. Edward Kennedy, and Jay Linnehan, the Greater Lowell Community Foundation’s executive director.
The Sisters of Charity invested a lot of time and money in getting the building ready for young women ages 18 to 22, according to Sister Cecile. The work included renovating the basement to include 14 bedrooms, an exercise room, a laundry area, and a kitchen.
“It’s home for them,” Sister Cecile says.
Over the years, Bachand Hall has housed 180 women. Many are students at UMass Lowell or Middlesex Community College. Only one young woman who was offered accommodation at the convent declined. Apparently, the religious statues and paintings scared her.
Frederick notes that Cousineau and the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa “have opened their home and hearts to young women aging out of DCF.”
Kennedy and Samaras talked about the holiday festival for which they are being recognized. Kennedy, who previously served as mayor, started the “Mayor’s Holiday Fest for Homeless Youth-Rock n’ Roll Fundraiser” during the second year of his term and Samaras continued it in 2018. The music fest includes 15 bands that each play a set of two-to-three songs.
“We raised $11,000 the first year, and I challenged Bill to do better,” Kennedy said.
Samaras did do better, raising $18,000 in 2018. He hopes to see the event raise more than $20,000 this year. The money goes to CTI’s youth homelessness programs primarily to pay for incidental expenses.
Samaras says his first awareness of youth homelessness came about 20 years ago while he was headmaster of Lowell High School.
“A situation came to my attention that really woke me to the need,” he said.
A teenage boy at the high school was sent to his office due to excessive absences. Samaras started to lecture the teenager, but the boy stopped him.
“Mr. Samaras, I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping tonight,” Samaras said the boy told him.
He was couch surfing, when he could, with friends and sometimes family members.
Samaras says he was able to get the teen some help and then launched a survey of LHS students. The survey disclosed that there were nearly 60 other students at the high school in similar situations. The school was able to help some of them.
Linnehan said the community foundation has been addressing the homeless issue using an analysis of community needs. The foundation has also been working closely with City Manager Eileen Donoghue.
Linnehan’s organization focuses on a “holistic approach” to the issue with a focus on “unaccompanied adults” who walk through downtown every day because there aren’t services for them. Now, “a whole lot of providers” are working on the issue, he said.
Frederick credits Samaras, Kennedy and Linnehan with making it a priority “that no young adult should be homeless. Thanks to their commitment, today over 70 young adults have been identified and are currently working with CTI.”
The event begins at 5:30 p.m. at CTI’s James Houlares Early Learning Center, 126 Phoenix Ave. Tickets are $100 and are available at the door.