Finding Resilience & Hope at the Willows

Finding Resilience & Hope at the Willows

The willow tree has a special place in many cultural traditions. With a strong well-rooted trunk, and drooping, swaying branches, the willow is both strong in the face of adversity and resilient when weathering the inevitable storms. And, if you cut off a branch and replant it, it will grow a new tree. Resilience. Hope. New life. These are the principles that have guided our journey to open the Willows at Woods Shelter for women.

The video conversation that President and CEO Karen LaFrazia and I had recently about the St. Francis House response to the inhumane conditions at the Mass & Cass encampments highlights how deeply too many people have fallen through the cracks in our homeless and treatment systems of care. In the last year, I have walked through the encampments there on many occasions, seeing the pain and struggle firsthand. I’ve sat with men who, after leaving the area for another part of the city, wept openly at the idea of ever going back. I’ve seen the bruises on women’s bodies and the terror in their eyes. I’ve seen fear and despair. And, yet, amidst all of it I’ve witnessed selfless acts of kindness—from outreach workers, certainly, but also from the very people living on the streets. In these ways, in this desolate concrete landscape dotted by colorful but tattered tents, I’ve seen a lot of willow trees swaying in the wind, looking for any way that they can imagine tomorrow as a better day.

In late fall of 2021, the City of Boston, under Mayor Wu’s leadership, made a commitment to clearing the encampments by providing every person living there an opportunity for another place to stay. To make this endeavor viable, multiple new crisis shelters and transitional housing sites were set up throughout the city, with spaces, services, policies and practices that were specifically designed to meet the needs of people who had, up until then, chosen to stay on the streets rather than in a traditional homeless shelter. St. Francis House was implored to take a lead in the effort. Not long after wrapping up our last sheltering project—a successful shelter operation at the Charles River Inn in the winter/spring of 2020-2021—we created and opened a new type of shelter to accommodate the women who had been living in the encampments. These women have incredibly complex lives—actively using drugs, living with multiple complicated medical and mental health conditions, struggling with trauma and daily re-traumatization, and experiencing exploitation and abuse in their life on the streets.

We had a lot of heart and clear commitment from our leadership. Staff raised their hands to do extra work to ensure we could make it happen. We had collaboration from the Boston Public Health Commission and Boston Healthcare for the Homeless. But, we had very little time and human resource to actually pull it off successfully. Following a whirlwind of activity, planning, and some honest-to-goodness sweat, we prepped the site. Three days before Christmas, we pulled the staff together to see it for the first time and participate in a whirlwind pre-opening training. Two days after Christmas, we opened to welcome the first of our 24 women. As you will hear and see in detail in the video, our ‘harm reduction” approach to sheltering emphasizes safety and dignity, flexibility and autonomy, support and connection. And it is working.

By the city deadline in mid January, every tent was cleared and the new sites, including the Willows, were filled. Our new shelter director, Nikki Sheldon, made sure that every woman would feel welcomed and at home, taking note of every way reasonable to ensure that their new place was warm and comfortable, stable and consistent, and fully of support and care.

Since then, we have seen many of our women gradually transform from being desperately hungry, deeply exhausted, and highly defensive to finding ways to contribute to the shelter, calling their new place “home”, and seeking out connections to care and treatment. Many have already started treatment for their substance use disorder. Some have already moved into housing. But the biggest indicator of success in our first 3 months is that our guests are staying long enough to take a breath, find their strengths and be reminded of their value. These women—these swaying, bending willow trees—are putting down new roots. Sometimes very tentatively, testing the soil with trepidation, and other times firmly, with conviction. They are showing how resilient they can be, even as they continue to struggle with very complicated lives, day by day. These women have weathered — and still find themselves in the centers of — unimaginable storms. And we are there for and with them, no matter where they have been, where they are today, or whatever may come next.

Written by Andrea Farina, Vice President of Program Strategy & Initiatives

Meet Nikki Sheldon, our March Staff Spotlight

This March we are featuring Nikki Sheldon as our monthly Staff Spotlight! Nikki does incredible work at our recently opened Willows at Woods shelter. This unique shelter offers accessible, low-threshold housing to women who were formerly residing at the Mass and Cass encampments. The women living at Willows at Woods face incredible challenges. As the Shelter Director, Nikki works to make sure each woman is cared for and treated with respect. Thank you, Nikki for your compassion and dedication!

How long have you been with St. Francis House? What do you do here?

I have been at St. Francis House since December of 2021. I am a Special Projects Officer currently serving as the Shelter Director for the Willows at Woods.

 Is there anything you wish people knew about your role or your department?

The Willows at Woods is a temporary shelter opened to help support women who were living in tents on the Melena Cass highway. We have 24 beds and continue to remain full, with a waiting list. This means at any given time we are providing a safe haven to 24 women who are constantly facing sexual assault, rape, or other kinds of unwanted physical abuse. Engaging in sex work is often used as a means for these women to acquire their next meal, drugs or alcohol, or something as seemingly small as a new pair of gloves.

 What part of your job do you enjoy most?

I enjoy going into the Willows at Woods every day and working with women who are struggling with homelessness, substance use disorder, and undiagnosed behavioral health issues. We work together to try to find any way possible to help them feel safe, heard, care for, loved, and most importantly, not judged!

One of my favorite parts of the day is when I am walking around and say hello to one of the ladies. Then this turns into a 45-minute conversation of her telling me her story and how she ended up at the Willows. Though these conversations are full of trauma and sadness. While listening, I can see in her eyes how she needs to talk about this and start her healing process.

Three Massachusetts Bills you can Support to Help People Experiencing Homelessness

At. St. Francis House, we believe in providing services and resources to anyone who needs them. Making this mission possible means providing refuge, recovery, employment and housing services as well as supporting legislation that will improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness. There are currently a handful of Massachusetts Bills under review that, if passed, would provide significant protections for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. We encourage you to support these bills by contacting your representatives and alerting them that you believe this legislation – and the lives of the people it protects – is important. Find out who your representative is here.

Here is an introduction to these pieces of legislation:

Bill S.2276/H.3515: An Act to Provide Identification to Youth and Adults Experiencing Homelessness

This bill would remove two major barriers that prevent people experiencing homelessness from acquiring a State ID in Massachusetts.

First, the bill would waive any fees that would normally be required to obtain an ID.

Second, the bill would change the address requirement so that a person without a permanent address would still be eligible for a State ID. Rather than submitting a home address, people experiencing homelessness would be allowed to use the address of a homeless shelter or other agency where they receive care.

Obtaining a State ID is an important pre-requisite to applying for jobs, housing, and bank accounts. Removing barriers to acquiring State IDs would open doors to numerous resources that would otherwise be inaccessible for people experiencing homelessness.

Bill S.111/H.202: An Act Improving Emergency Housing Assistance for Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness

Families applying for emergency housing encounter unrealistic wait times, difficulty verifying eligibility, and a 12-month re-entry ban for housing. This bill addresses address those problems.

Bill S.111/H.202 would allow families to self-certify their need for emergency housing, cutting down unnecessary wait times and processing delays. The bill would also prevent people’s applications from being denied simply for needing further verification and prevent applications from being rejected during a state of emergency.

Additionally, the state would appoint an ombudsperson to work with families, guiding them through the process of seeking out emergency housing, and acting as a liaison between them and their program so they never need to navigate this unfamiliar process alone.

Perhaps most importantly, Bill S211/H.202 would lift the 12-month re-entry, allowing families more stability when they seek out emergency housing.

Families who are at risk of homelessness need help quickly and efficiently. Many have urgent needs and cannot wait for processing delays. Bill S211/H.202 would help meet the needs of more vulnerable families and ensure they are well informed and represented while seeking out emergency housing.

Bill S.1445/H.2354: An Act to Increase Access to Disposable Menstrual Products in Prisons, Homeless Shelters, and Public Schools

First introduced in 2019, this bill requires that menstrual products are provided to individuals who visit homeless shelters in a “convenient manner” that “does not stigmatize” anybody who accesses these products. Also called the “I Am” Bill, this piece of legislation would ensure that people who menstruate can be confident that their personal needs will be met in public spaces just as reliably as anyone else’s needs would be met. This bill represents a meaningful step towards equity for people in shelters, schools and prisons who menstruate.

Call or write your representative!

Make a meaningful impact in the lives of people experiencing homelessness and the status of these bills by contacting your state representative and alerting them of your support. If you have a story or a personal reason why you believe these bills are important we encourage you to share your reason for support. Click here to find your representative and how you can contact them.

GBH News: ‘We need to change the system.’ Overcrowded homeless shelters ask state to double its budget

Years before the pandemic, Massachusetts homeless shelters needed help. A 2016 survey from the Coalition for Homeless Individuals shows that state resources covered less than half the costs of homeless services across Massachusetts.

Then COVID hit, and the needs exploded.

Read the full article.