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The Pursuit of Happiness

Here’s a riddle: What does not discriminate against age, race, gender, or ethnicity?

The answer? Homelessness.

According to the Massachusetts Collation for the Homeless, as of July, 2019, “there were 3,557 families with children and pregnant individuals in Massachusetts’ Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program.”

Children’s Services of Roxbury (CSR) has provided Emergency Shelter and Housing Services for homeless families in the Greater Roxbury area for over 20 years. CSR’s Housing and Stabilization program is designed to assist homeless families with short-term and long-term housing.

Working directly with the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), CSR is assigned families to shelter in one of its 166 shelter units, which include 69 congregate-housing units and 97 scattered-site housing units.

“We immediately begin working with them,” said Joan Sinner, VP of Housing and Stabilization. “We work with each family individually. We start working with them to figure out what their barriers to housing are and start to chip away at those and help them to start thinking about what their housing strategy will look like going forward.”

Once a family is housed in CSR’s shelters, stabilization begins. Families are provided with a Case and Placement Manager who welcomes them and works with them to access wraparound services that will prepare them for independent, long-term housing.

“Housing is obviously our number one priority, but in order for families to get housing, we know that income matters, we know that their obstacles need to be addressed,” said Sinner. “If a family’s income can’t support the rent, the parent may need another job. If a parent is battling mental health-issues, sometimes it’s an obstacle to the parent taking action to secure housing. We make referrals to our Behavioral Health Department, so the parent gets the support needed to continue the housing search. There are many barriers that make it hard to obtain or hold onto housing, so we try to help address those things while the family is in shelter.”

“This is not just shelter, this is shelter plus care,” said France Victor, CSR Case Placement Manager.

The wraparound services CSR’s Housing and Stabilization program offers include workshops and training:

  • Workforce Development: Designed to teach families job readiness, which include how to create a resume, how to interview, apply for a job, professionalism, coordinating job fairs to help with employment, etc.
  • Housing Workshops: Workshops designed to teach families how to look for and maintain housing. The workshops also coach families on how to be their own, best advocates, teaching them that they are their family’s first defense against the world. Workshops are broken into three sections:
  1. Basic Skills: How to make out a housing application, make follow-up calls, search for market rate/subsidized apartments etc.
  2. Life Skills: Interpersonal communication skills, fostering healthy relationships, establishing a family/household structure, pest control, fire safety, etc.
  3. Finances & Budgeting: Understanding banking, managing credit, savings/the methodology of saving, saving 30% of income (which is what they pay for housing), etc.
  • Housing Field-trips: Designed to introduce families to more affordable towns and communities outside of Boston which maybe practical and convenient for their lives.
  • Nurturing Fathers: Designed for men in shelter (or men related to families in shelter) to build a connection on fatherhood and their roles in the home. Fathers also learn co-parenting skills.
  • Parenting Journey: Through exercises and dialogue, parents reflect on how their experiences affect their parenting, what influences they draw on, different approaches to parenting, and how to be more mindful of the choices they make. Parents also explore co-parenting skills.
  • Tech Goes Home: Designed for families to participate in a 15hr workshop to learn how to use the internet and computer. Families who complete the workshop get a Chromebook at a significantly reduced rate.

“Our goal is that a family comes here once. You learn how to pull yourself up, and find the support and resources you need, so you never need to return to shelter. It’s a happy sendoff when we’ve successfully completed what we needed to do for a family’s success,” said Lorraine Trowers, CSR Director of Scattered-Sites.

Families are in shelter for an average of nine months before moving into permanent housing. The services and training CSR’s Housing and Stabilization program provides, further equip families with skills and tools to sustain once they move out of shelter to live on their own.

Boston Housing Authority (BHA) allots vouchers for some families in shelter, which allow those low-income families to rent privately owned apartments of their choice, by subsidizing a portion of their rent. However, families must demonstrate they are able to live on their own in order to receive the voucher. CSR’s wraparound services prepare families in shelter with the mental, social, emotional, economic, and physical readiness to obtain a voucher and acquire housing to live on their own.

Vice President of Housing and Stabilization Joan Sinner said that most families are highly motivated to move from shelter into their own apartments. When families in shelter begin preparing for long-term/permanent housing, the team within CSR’s Housing and Stabilization assists with the process.

“There’s a ton of paper work, movers are required, and first, last and security deposits are required along with relator’s fees at times,” said Sinner. “Those are the types of things that we try to help families secure, which depends on the type of housing they’re getting, and those are expenses that very few people have, let alone families in shelter.”

Once a family is deemed eligible and receives a voucher, CSR Case and Placement Managers continue to work with them to find an apartment where the landlord accepts Section 8 vouchers. Once an apartment is secured, CSR Case and Placement Managers also help families find furniture for the apartment.

There are some instances when families in shelter do not receive vouchers but have generated enough income to move from shelter to long-term housing. In those cases, CSR’s Housing and Stabilization program helps those families for a year with a subsidy towards their rent, and works to assist families with services going forward.

Stabilization continues after families move into long-term housing. CSR Case and Placement Managers work with families for a year, and longer if needed, helping them transition with heading a household, remaining focused on their educational and individual goals, employment, and more, ultimately ensuring families achieve long-term permanency.

Aureliz Estrella is a mom of twins who was in shelter at CSR congregate-sites:

When a family moves out of shelter into their long-term housing, CSR’s Housing and Stabilization program has a minimum of 24hrs – 48hrs (and a maximum of five days) to prepare for a new family to enter its shelter units. Preparation includes repairing any damages and painting the apartment if needed, which is done by the program’s property team.

“There is a data base that allows the state to know which shelter units are available, so if we have a unit that is vacant, clean and ready, it’s considered available,” said Sinner. “We’ve had at least 15 families move out of shelter in one month, so that is a lot of rooms and property to turn over. When a new family comes in, we’re starting fresh.”

Between July 2019 and December 2019, CSR’s Housing and Stabilization program moved 74 families from shelter to permanent housing.  

People become homeless for different reasons. When families enter shelter, some enter with absolutely nothing; they need food and clothes, they have limited supplies. There are also some families who enter shelter with some belongings, but their income is very low; they might be able to afford food and some of the basics, but they can’t afford rent.

The face of homelessness can’t be easily drawn or described; it is a diverse pool of features and complexions. CSR’s Housing and Stabilization program thoroughly works with each family who enters its shelter units to secure permanent housing, providing them with wraparound skills and services as plan towards their pursuit of happiness – a home and stability.  

“Things happen, we can’t blame them, not everyone becomes homeless because they didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” said Victor. “Nobody wants to be homeless, everybody is trying to give their best to their children, everybody wants to win, nobody wants to stay down.”

If you would like more information on CSR’s Housing and Stabilization program, or if you are interested in contributing to the program’s services, please contact Joan Sinner, VP of Housing & Stabilization,