By Magda Dakin
Seventy-five people gathered in the Media Center at the Northbridge High School on Thursday night, January 25, to learn about and discuss current needs in the community, and specifically homelessness as it appears in the Blackstone Valley. Dozens of groups and individuals gathered together in what appears to be the beginning stages of one, getting the news out that there is a problem and two, determining what can be done about it.
Spearheaded by the Northbridge Coalition and presented by Family Continuity’s Blackstone Connector, the forum presented a panel discussion, support from local elected officials and an open conversation with the attending audience, which represented at least a dozen more community-based organizations willing to be a part of the solution.
Uxbridge Police Chief Jeffrey A. Lourie reported that five local police chiefs have discussed their growing awareness of homelessness as a problem in the Blackstone Valley, indicating that part of the problem is local men who are released from the Worcester House of Correction and are forced to live on the street, often due to their family's unwillingness to take them in. The chief also reported that the first two referrals to the Blackstone Connector program were two men left on the street with no ID, no job and no place to stay.
Panelist Jack Green, counselor with the Family Continuity Blackstone Valley Connector, spoke about their objective to create a resource center for those in need and connecting them. “We discovered that affordable housing was a key issue for those in need of services. This forum was created to look at the different points of view and availability in the Valley…and what can we do moving forward.”
Catherine Stickney, Northbridge school superintendent, spoke of the school and teachers’ roles in reporting problems they may see. “In 2014, the state started collecting data on homelessness as it pertained to our children and redefined what homelessness is: Individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. We discovered many students were actually ‘couch surfing’ and often had no consistent transportation. The number changes frequently but there are around 35 children currently living in non-typical situations.”
Another panelist, Leslie Reichert, reported her experiences in the last several years in running the Blackstone Valley Emergency Shelter, currently open every evening the temperature is below freezing, opening at 7 p.m. for registration and sheltering those in need until 7 a.m. “It’s been very cold so far this year and we’ve had beds filled every night, often as many as eight per night. We currently run the shelter at the Presbyterian Church in Whitinsville with one evening at the Pleasant St. Christian Reformed Church and one evening at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.” Ms. Reichert gave graphic examples of those in need of the shelter’s services, including one mother who climbed into the clothing donation bins at the Salvation Army thrift store with her kids in an effort to keep them warm for the night.
Panelist Jeannie Hebert, president and CEO of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, indicated that the business community was not aware of the extent of the problems locally and the Chamber would be bringing it to the forefront. “We’ll rally the businesses to plan the best ways to attack the problem.”
Pastor Josh Howard of the Valley Chapel gave some current examples of the needs locally, including a man who held down two jobs but still couldn’t afford a place to live so he hid under an abandoned porch during the evenings.
ll the local elected officials attended the forum, underscoring the importance of the issues. Many spoke briefly about their current efforts on behalf of the homeless population in the Valley.
Congressman James P. McGovern reminded the audience that there isn’t a typical stereotype for a homeless person. Removing the stigma might help in dealing with the situations. State Representatives David K. Muradian, Jr. of Grafton, and Joseph D. McKenna from Webster indicated that the House’s recent $1.7 billion affordable housing bond bill should make “a big difference” in creating affordable units for those in need in the future.
After the panel discussion, many of the groups represented in the audience, such as Peace of Bread, Net of Compassion and Grafton Medical Response Center, relayed their part in the fight and efforts they are making in the community. Notably, Danielle LaRiviere from the Central Mass Housing Alliance invited attendees to obtain information about their 300-bed facility and participate in ongoing efforts to gather and distribute local data about available services.
Forum leader Craig Maxim of Family Continuity facilitated the meeting and encouraged further participation. Follow up discussions are scheduled for Thursday, February 15, and Thursday, March 1 at 10 a.m. at the Family Continuity offices at 76 Church St. in Whitinsville. Contact: www.familycontinuity.org, 508-488-5098. Shelter information is at www.whitpres.org/shelter, or call 508-266-5122.