In 1966, Mark Alston-Follansbee, now executive director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition (SHC), had to leave college to be drafted into the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, he was given the option to either join the infantry or enlist for an extra year and work as a journalist instead. Since he had previously hoped to work in journalism, he decided to go the second route.
“I would jump out of helicopters … write stories and take photographs,” Alston-Follansbee said. “It was such a negative experience that I gave away all my cameras. I never wanted to take another photograph or write another story for the rest of my life.”
After returning from Vietnam, Alston-Follansbee said he realized that many of the homeless people he saw in Boston had also served in the war.
“I started talking to people on the street when they would ask me for money, and a lot of it felt familiar — a lot of them were veterans, mostly Vietnam veterans,” he said.
In 2000, Alston-Follansbee came to work with the city of Somerville at the SHC.
Alston-Follansbee spoke at a group discussion about housing insecurity and gentrification on Oct. 3, organized by the Humanist Community at Tufts (HCAT) and the Leonard Carmichael Society (LCS)’s Shelters group. While vouching for the value of helping individuals at a person-to-person, day-to-day level, he pointed out that shelters are only a quick fix to the structural problems of homelessness.
The SHC offers a wide range of services for the homeless, from soup kitchens and overnight shelters to long-term housing placement. Although he acknowledged that the work he does is hard, Alston-Follansbee said he is proud of the success the organization has had in providing long-term housing for some of their clients.
“There’s some real satisfaction … We’ve had people who were on the street for 20 and 30 years, and we put them in apartments,” he said. “We’ve given them a safe place, a door to close, a TV to watch. We ought to be thinking about how to do that for everybody.”
While the SHC provides both overnight services and long-term housing for the homeless, Alston-Follansbee said he hopes to see more growth in their affordable housing programs.
“We’ve really changed our focus to trying to prevent people from becoming homeless, because if they fall into homelessness, it is so hard to get them back into housing because [of] … a lack of affordable housing,” he said.
He emphasized that overnight shelters are not a permanent solution for homelessness, but merely provide a temporary fix to the problem.
“Shelters are never the answer. It’s just a band-aid,” he said.
He also pointed out that while shelters may be the norm for housing the homeless, they are far from the best option.
“It’s important to get people off the street — [where] there is a lot of violence and abuse,” he said. “But shelters have become a kind of de facto housing for poor people. It’s structure, but it’s not normal.”
Marina Rakhilin, the vice president of HCAT, had hoped the event would provide insight into the structural causes of homelessness rather than solely on its temporary solutions.
“You can donate money to food shelters, you can go cook a meal, but what is the structure behind that?” Rakhilin, a senior, asked. “How do we act as people every day to combat homelessness?”
Alston-Follansbee touched briefly on the issue of gentrification in the Somerville area as a structural cause of homelessness, stating that rising rents — caused in part by Tufts students — have forced out many lifetime residents.
“It goes back to people who were born here, grew up here, wanted to stay here, being forced out of the community due to market influences,” he said.
When asked how he thinks students should get involved, Alston-Follansbee suggested they come to a weekly free meal hosted by the SHC.
“Every Monday at 4:00, we have a meal. I always encourage people to get a plate for themselves and sit down and talk to people,” he said. “The worst thing we do is cut people off from their humanity — they’re dying to sit down and talk to people. There are a lot of people who are hungry for some human contact.”
Along with working with the SHC, HCAT President Corrinne Smith-Winterscheidt said that the group aims to provide a community for those who have not necessarily found one in traditional religion.
“In general we try to make a space for people who might not conform to a specific religious space,” Smitth-Winterscheidt, a senior, said. “So that could be humanist, athiest, agnostic, just vaguely spiritual. Everybody’s welcome in our space.”
She said that HCAT partners with local organizations like the SHC to get involved in the local community and broaden their own.
“Often if you aren’t a part of a religious space you might be lacking in a community that volunteers together and helps out at food shelters or has a weekly space that you go to,” Smith said. “So that aspect we try to emulate in HCAT [formerly known as Freethought].”
The LCS Shelters group also helped plan the event, led by junior Whitney Johnson and senior Hande Guven.
Johnson said she loves working with the SHC, stressing that the Shelters group seeks to make it easy for Tufts students to get involved in their community. In particular, the group’s monthly volunteer session will take place on Friday at Heading Home, a Cambridge shelter.
“We live in these neighborhoods, but we don’t think about them that much,” she said. “I think it’s important for everyone to do some kind of community service.”