Kavi Kaushik, YWCA Cambridge Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator
April is Fair Housing Month, and this year was the 54th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. This legislation prevents discrimination in housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and familial status. Although it is illegal in Massachusetts to discriminate against someone based on their source of income (e.g. a housing voucher), 90% of people in Greater Boston who indicated they were using a voucher reported facing discriminatory behavior from a rental agent(1). Fair Housing can look like more than just solving voucher-based discrimination, it is at its core about all people having their own keys to a place they call home. There is no one policy change or attitude change that will achieve this, but listening to folks dealing with housing insecurity and to those who work directly with clients is a starting place. What is working? What isn’t? Where do we go from here?
Kavi (they/them), our Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator, sat down with three folks working with unhoused parents & children at YWCA Cambridge’s Family Shelter, Renae’s Place.
One huge theme that came up multiple times is that the folks coming into shelter often are dealing with a lack of social support in addition to mistreatment at other organizations or social service hubs. Before folks are able to work closely with advocates and case managers, trust needs to be built. “Especially when you are dealing with those who have been consistently beaten down by laws around immigration,” Family Shelter Case Manager and HMIS Coordinator Michelle Howe highlights, “long wait times, dealing with people who do not take the time to build that trust before demanding personal information for legal reasons, etc. [are just a few of the challenges].”
Trudy Bartlett, Manager of the Family Shelter, discussed how long this process can be.
“By the time we get to them, nobody’s going to tell you the truth until they trust you… and in the first couple of months, you are figuring it out. Clients will say different things to different staff, and we all have to come together and figure out what’s going on. And little by little they get to trust us. But it takes time to get across “we’re not there to harass you.” They’re being watched 24/7 on how they treat their kids. They’re under a microscope. And so it can be a process to get them to trust us.”
The history that some folks in shelter have with being mistreated, ignored, or just not supported often collides with the potential embarrassment of living in a shelter, where their kids can’t invite their friends over and can’t do things other kids can. Trying to live a “normal” life while in shelter is hard!
The second big theme brought up in these conversations was the overwhelming nature of some rules and regulations, as well as contradictions in rules between certain programs. Some residents in shelter are limited in the number of evenings they can be outside of the shelter, which impacts their ability to build support outside of their immediate family. Research has found that having meaningful social ties contributes to a reduction in mortality risk and improves overall mental and physical health(2). Regardless of housing status, everyone deserves the opportunity to foster social ties, and furthermore, allowing for improvements in social well-being can even be seen as working towards health equity.
So where do we go from here? How do we advance the mission of “fair housing”? Shamara Morris, our Housing and Stabilization Case Manager, brings us back to the main thing that can get overshadowed by rules, regulations, and time crunches: respect.
She reminded us that so many individuals in our community are one paycheck away from housing instability and that everyone, regardless of their status in life, deserves respect and autonomy. Legislative and policy suggestions to support those individuals include: the need for more affordable units, the need for rents and subsidies to be based on a single-parent income, the need for more explicit supports in all social services for undocumented folks navigating housing insecurity, and the need for accessible childcare regardless of income.
Children and parents who come through the doors of our family shelter, like many other unhoused folks finding temporary shelter, can be embarrassed, disappointed, and insecure, especially when dealing with the hoops one has to jump through to access many services and basic needs. Michelle comments,
“That generation needs to be changed. And they need to know they’re worth it. The parents are often already feeling horrible but I tell them, “right when you walk through the door… you are making it better and you are worth it”.”
This is an attitude I believe we should all carry as we work in client-facing professions, especially with unhoused and unstably housed folks, and as we work towards equitable, truly fair housing practices.
Thank you to Trudy Bartlett, Michelle Howe, and Shamara Morris for their time and words!
Trudy Bartlett is YWCA Cambridge’s Manager of Renae’s Place Family Shelter, Michelle Howe is YWCA Cambridge’s Renae’s Place Family Shelter Case Manager & HMIS Coordinator. Shamara Morris is YWCA Cambridge’s Renae’s Place Family Shelter Housing and Stabilization Case Manager. Collectively they have been serving families at Renae’s Place for over 40 years.
2. Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social relationships and health: a flashpoint for health policy. Journal of health and social behavior, 51 Suppl(Suppl), S54–S66. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383501