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For 2022, Resolve to Understand How People Become Unhoused, and How You Can Help

By Maria Zaroulis

During this season, our reflections often turn to the real spirit of the holidays. We see people living on the streets when it is so cold, or families in shelters, and we wonder, “How can we help?” Some donate items or money to local charities. The more adventurous may take to the streets and drop off warm blankets, hats and gloves to those huddled in doorways. 

In our own community, both Tewksbury and Lowell, I’ve heard discussion of people sleeping outside local businesses. That brings the problem home and leads to a myriad of thoughts and emotions, sometimes curiosity and concern, but more often fear and judgment. It’s not uncommon for people to assume that because individuals are homeless, they must be drug addicts or severely mentally ill. Sometimes they are. But the real question we should reflect on is, “How did this happen?” 

I can best describe the answer as peeling back the layers of an onion. Temporary transitional homelessness is far more common than people realize, and the reasons are ones that many can relate to. Homelessness rarely happens overnight but is caused by a series of events, usually beginning with trauma.  

Take the example of a single parent of two children who lost a job and is now collecting unemployment. The bills start to pile up, and the parent can no longer afford childcare, which makes finding a new job nearly impossible. Now the family falls behind in rent. They miss a few payments and are evicted. As anyone who’s looked for housing knows, affordable units are rare, and landlords are unlikely to rent to someone who is unemployed and without the cash for first, last and security deposit.

So, the family moves in temporarily with a friend. They stay there a month or so, but it’s crowded with two families under one roof, and the relationship becomes strained. They try to find another friend or family member to take them in, with no luck. 

As you can imagine, stress has now triggered depression and anxiety.

“In Massachusetts, about 24,658 public school students experienced homelessness over the course of the 2018-2019 school year, according to data reported to the U.S. Department of Education and shared by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Of that total, 206 students were unsheltered, 7,502 were in shelters, 1,620 were in hotels/motels, and 15,330 were doubled up.”


The family now applies for emergency shelter. However, this is not something that happens quickly. In the meantime, they move into a hotel, but that cannot be sustained for long because of the expense. In addition, to collect unemployment, you must have a permanent address, so they ask a friend if they can use theirs. Next, they move into their car until they can be placed in a shelter that is suitable for children. Unfortunately, that may not be in a town they’re familiar with, or where the children attend school. Anxiety and depression are fueled, and the downward spiral continues. Perhaps the parent has been sober for years, and this situation has triggered a relapse. 

One sliver of good news here is that displaced families with children typically have priority in the placement process. But what about a single male? Very often, they are discharged from hospitals with no place to go. They have no cars. Hospital staff may give them a list of phone numbers to call for assistance, but often there are no resources, or the person is unable to navigate the process. He may be allowed to sleep in a chair in the hospital lobby for a night or two, but then he’s on his own to wander the streets, looking for a place to eat, or get warm. Those able to do so continue to call local shelters, but few beds are available.

If they’re lucky, unhoused single people may be placed in a hotel temporarily. Eventually, they end up on the street again. This is very common with the elderly or people who have health problems. They may not have cell phones. How does this person make all the necessary calls and fill out paperwork that is often only available online? When’s the last time you saw a pay phone?

What do we do when we see that person sleeping outside a local business? Offering a few bucks is a nice gesture, but it won’t solve anything. Calling the police likely won’t help either, because the person isn’t unruly or bothering anyone. The police probably already know the situation, and may have tried to help, as happened in Tewksbury last summer.

But the fact is, in the past two years, the Covid pandemic has put a tremendous strain on service agencies. Most shelters are allowed to fill only half the number of beds or rooms available, given social distancing and other state guidelines.

Covid has driven a tremendous increase in substance abuse relapses, higher rates of domestic violence and an all-time high in homelessness due to a lack of affordable housing. It’s a perfect storm. 

Never assume that a person sleeping outside chose to live like that. Or that they must have burned every bridge and got what they deserved due to poor life choices. Nor should these people be feared. Ask them what happened. Talk to them. Find out what they need. You may be surprised to find that they owned a home not far from yours at one point in time, had a great life. Know what services are available, and give them this information. Make a phone call if needed. This simple act of kindness could make a far greater impact than that $20. 

Our purpose in this life, and in this season, is to be humane and to help one another. We are, each of us, only as strong as our support system.

Maria Zaroulis is a member of the Tewksbury Board of Health and a resident who is able to stay in her community because of the Mass. Chapter 40B program.

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