Challenge of finding a place to call home
By GRACE BIRD
GREENFIELD — As a young man in his early 20s, Shawn Hayden’s life was on track: he had a good job, a girlfriend and plenty of family and friends. Then he injured his back, received an opioid prescription, and before long, he had developed a heroin addiction.
After becoming addicted, Hayden lost his job, his partner and his child, as well as his home, living on the street for a couple of years before he was sent to prison. While incarcerated, Hayden got sober, and after his release he lived in halfway and sober housing for nearly a year.
Then, he set out to look for his own home for the first time since his years of homelessness and incarceration. However, he knew what was ahead of him: applications with a section reading “rental history.”
“She handed me a standard rental application and I got to the part I was afraid of, which was your last three residences,” Hayden said. “What I had was: a sober house I lived in for four months, a halfway house I lived in for six months, and I really didn’t want to put the third one … the jail.”
But to Hayden’s surprise, he said, his prospective landlord looked at his application with kindness.
“I figured it would be a few days until I heard from her,” Hayden said. “But she picked it up, she looked at it, and she said: ‘Oh, is that a halfway house? Good for you, I grew up a few doors down from that, and your guys used to cut my mom’s lawn.’”
Hayden was given the lease.
“It was unbelievable,” Hayden said. “It was an important lesson for me, that as I go through this process, it’s important that I be honest.”
Today, Hayden has returned to the promising track he was on as a 20-something. He has reunited with his partner and his now 14-year-old child. He’s CEO of the social services organization GAAMHA, Inc. And this year, Hayden will have been sober for a decade. Start of a conversation
Not every story is like Hayden’s, though. That much was clear at a meeting Thursday for landlords and formerly incarcerated people seeking housing held by the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region.
While Thursday’s meeting was the first of its kind held by the task force, Coordinator Debra McLaughlin said, it was well-attended by about two dozen prospective tenants. However, only one landlord — the panelist Claire Huttlinger — showed up. McLaughlin said she hoped more landlords would come to the meeting next time to meet prospective tenants and offer suggestions on how to apply for housing.
“We see this as the beginning of the conversation,” McLaughlin said.
The task force offered hopeful tenants a few suggestions to attain housing. The first idea: sign up to receive benefits through the state-funded Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program. As part of the program, low-income earners can apply to receive up to $4,000 a year to help pay for housing expenses. The second suggestion was to ensure they include multiple references in their rental applications. The third was to bring an advocate to interviews with prospective landlords — a friend or an employee from a regional advocacy organization, for example, Community Action or the Franklin County Resource Center.
The sole landlord who came to the meeting, Huttlinger, expressed compassion for people in need of housing, especially those struggling with addiction, given that her brother died of a drug overdose. She noted that rent in Greenfield is expensive, saying she was surprised the rate she set, which she saw as high, received so much interest. Huttlinger currently rents to two people who were formerly addicted.
“They are the best tenants you could have,” Huttlinger said.
While she is empathetic to those with histories of addiction or incarceration, Huttlinger noted that renting her property is a financial risk, and she needs to be able to “pay the mortgage.”
“I’m not worried about people who are scraping together money. It’s OK if it’s a little bit late. So far, I haven’t had any trouble with people not paying at all,” Huttlinger said.
Huttlinger also said she is concerned about being “attacked,” as “when people can’t pay, they go to all sorts of lengths … and can call you on all sorts of things.”
To dispel her concerns, Huttlinger said she “has gotten into the habit” of calling the police to ask for their perception of an applicant. She also said she finds it reassuring if an applicant can show they have community support, by providing references or coming to interviews with friends or family. An obvious problem
Franklin County’s shortage of affordable housing is no secret to locals, who have seen rents spike in recent years to $899, according to U.S. Census Bureau data collected from 2013 to 2017. Meanwhile, the county is among the poorest in the state with 10 percent of its residents living in poverty.
Elizabeth Bienz, program director for the Franklin County Resource Center, said one of the most significant reasons people in the region have trouble finding permanent housing is the high cost of rent.
“The biggest driver that I’ve seen in the 10 years I’ve been there has been just the way that rent has increased really dramatically, while wages haven’t,” Bienz said.
In addition, the experience of homelessness can cause trauma and create mental health issues, Bienz said. This may require individuals to apply for Social Security benefits, meaning they have a limited income of $700 to $800 per month and need subsidized housing. And there is limited public housing in the region, with about 1,600 units in Franklin County and North Quabbin.
There is also a shortage of beds in homeless shelters for individuals regionally, Bienz said. While the state is mandated to provide shelter for homeless families, individuals seeking shelter are often left on wait lists, Bienz said.
As individuals await space in a shelter, Bienz said, they often sleep in tents, abandoned buildings or in subsidized units where they are not legally allowed to stay.
There are only 20 shelter beds for individuals available in Franklin County, with a waitlist of 20 to 40 people at any one time. And a shelter bed is only temporary: individuals can stay up to 60 days with no questions, and can extend that period by another 30 days if they can prove they are looking for housing. The average stay is six months. She said the program has been contacting legislators to seek funding for more beds since last October.
“That’s not anywhere near enough,” Bienz said.