There are 17,565 people in Massachusetts experiencing homelessness, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Within Somerville alone, the Somerville Homeless Coalition (SHC) served 2,119 people in 2016, as stated in its annual report.
“It’s now said that Boston has [among] the greatest income inequality of any city in the country. And we have very little affordable housing,” Mark Alston-Follansbee, executive director of the SHC, said.
Somerville has become an increasingly expensive area to live in, with an online estimate by Zillow citing an eight percent increase in housing costs in the past year. At the same time, nonprofits like Spare Change News and the SHC have worked to help individuals throughout the area, including formerly homeless veteran Jerry Harrell.
Born and raised in East Boston, Mass., Harrell left the city in 1970 to fight in the Vietnam War. After years in combat, Harrell found himself back in the United States as a war veteran with nowhere to turn.
“My mom passed away,” Harrell said. “I was staying with my dad, then he couldn’t cope, and so I had nowhere to go and ended up in the shelter system.”
While he was staying in homeless shelters in Boston, Harrell heard of a new organization called Spare Change News, which partners with those experiencing housing insecurity to provide jobs producing content for and selling its newspapers.
“A gentleman who was a [Spare Change] vendor … brought me into the paper and told me about it,” he said.
Today, Harrell is no longer homeless. He has overcome troubles with addiction to raise an 18-year-old daughter and gain stable housing, all while working with Spare Change.
“I love it out here this morning,” Harrell said, clutching a stack of newspapers outside the Davis Square Starbucks early one Tuesday morning. “You want one? They’re $2 each.”
Harrell is one of the hundreds of formerly or currently homeless people who have worked with Spare Change since its inception in 1992.
“Jerry was one of the first vendors with Spare Change,” James Shearer, co-founder of Spare Change, said about Harrell. “He’s been around with us in the beginning.”
Shearer and a group of friends started the organization in Boston with the aim of changing the conversation around homelessness.
“I founded Spare Change to give homeless people a voice,” Shearer said. “We were all homeless at the time.”
Despite lacking housing, Shearer was determined to expand the options available for homeless people to work toward stability and long-term home options.
“We felt that the system of shelters for homeless people was not doing the job,” Shearer said. “It was supposed to help you move forward and move off the street. It wasn’t doing that.”
Beyond his goal of expanding job opportunities, Shearer also hoped to change the societal image of those experiencing housing insecurity.
“Homeless people would be portrayed as all substance abusers, all mentally ill,” he said. “We tried to create something to show people what’s really going on when it comes to homelessness.”
Shearer himself was able to escape addiction while leading Spare Change, citing the organization as a key factor in getting his life back on track.
“I was using substances; a lot of my life wasn’t right,” he said. “I managed to pull myself together through Spare Change.”
He cites those who have overcome homelessness or gained job skills while at Spare Change as the organization’s greatest success stories.
“It’s been able to provide a resource for homeless people to actually get off the streets, to help them restore their dignity and well-being and make money and eventually get them housing,” Shearer said. “They can’t get rich off the paper but it opens the door to other things.”
Joe, who requested that his last name not be published due to privacy concerns, is a Spare Change vendor often spotted in the Davis Square MBTA Station. Today, he is no longer homeless, but he likes to sell the newspaper because it keeps him in touch with the community.
“I get involved so I don’t forget where I came from,” he said. “I was homeless. I’m not anymore.”
Joe, who was born and raised in Boston, also began working for Spare Change while experiencing problems with addiction and housing.
“My father lost our house,” he said. “I’m a recovering alcoholic. Thirty-two years.”
He said that selling Spare Change has helped him reach out and help other people out of homelessness.
“It’s helped me get to know people, talk to people. I reach out to people with the cups and everything,” Joe said, referring to people using cups to solicit change. “I tell them, ‘You should sell these [newspapers].’ I got a few people doing that. I reach out to a lot of people.”
While Spare Change News helps those experiencing homelessness work towards long-term job and housing opportunities, other organizations in Somerville work to provide more immediate, concrete solutions.
The SHC, led by Alston-Follansbee, has provided a diverse array of resources for the homeless around Somerville since 1985.
“We have two shelters. We run the biggest food pantry in Somerville — Project SOUP,” Alston-Follansbee said. “There’s also our housing program, and then our prevention program.”
Aside from offering beds and temporary shelter, the SHC also works with clients on case management, aiming to place them in permanent housing.
“This has been kind of a natural progression,” Alston-Follansbee said. “We started with shelters because you have this emergency need … Finally, we started doing case management, which works with people to help them get through these systems that are not easy to navigate.”
While working with the homeless to place them in long-term housing, Alston-Follansbee and the SHC began to recognize that they would never have enough resources or space to house everyone in need of shelter.
“What we realized was that [for] people who don’t have anything, any little crisis could potentially push them into homelessness. So we’ll do whatever it takes to keep them housed,” Alston-Follansbee said.
Instead, the SHC aims to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place through prevention programs, working with families and individuals through immediate crisis management.
“If somebody’s car breaks down, they can’t go to work. If they can’t go to work, they can’t get paid. Then they can’t pay their rent — so we’ll just fix the car. We’ll do whatever it takes so that they can stay housed,” Alston-Follansbee said.
According to the organization’s annual report, the SHC’s prevention programs kept 236 people in Somerville out of homelessness in 2016. Nevertheless, Alston-Follansbee says there remains much more to be done, especially with housing costs in the Boston area continuing to rise.
“I worked in Cambridge for [nearly 13] years before I came here,” he said. “We could always get people apartments in Somerville. So now we have people coming in our door who are from Somerville, they want to stay in Somerville and they’re being forced out.”
He cited income inequality in Boston and the geographical density of Somerville as factors pushing people out of the neighborhood.
“People are having to go to Lynn, or they’re having to go to Fall River, which is further and further away from their support systems,” he said. “How are they going to commute?”
When asked how individuals could get involved or help, Alston-Follansbee said getting politically involved and advocating for improved mental health resources has never been more important.
“It goes back to poverty being a political issue,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that sense of what our responsibility is to ourselves and to our community and sense of community.”
He stated that working to get people housed in any community benefits everyone.
“It will cost people less money if we have people housed than to have them homeless,” Alston-Follansbee said. “So why don’t we give them the basic necessities, improve their quality of life, and it’ll make it easier on everybody. We could change this dynamic quickly if we put our mind to it.”