Home for the Holidays

As the holidays approach, many of our guests will have the chance to do something they haven’t done in months or years – celebrate the joy of having a home. “I can’t believe it,” guests say, as they think about waking up in their own room or apartment. “Neysa made this happen.”

Neysa Johnson, our Housing Coordinator, loves the excitement in their voices because guests often feel defeated when they visit her for the first time in our Robert Branconnier Housing Resource Center. “Many people come in and there’s no life in their eyes,” she says. “But I tell them help is available and getting a place is easier than they might think.” That comment shocks some, since public housing has a wait list of two to five years – an eternity for people who are living on the streets. “Guests struggle just to get through the day and meet their basic needs,” Neysa says. The thought of a housing search feels overwhelming, especially since different programs can have different rules. “Some people give up before they start, or they give up because of all the paperwork.” Finding a market-rate apartment is challenging, too, because the cost of living is high in Boston and landlords often require a significant sum up front.

Neysa streamlines the process for guests and tells them about a government program – the Emergency Solution Grant (ESG) – that provides first-month’s rent, last-month’s rent, and security deposit, as well as assistance with the first few rent payments. As she speaks, the blank look in guests’ eyes slowly turns into cautious hope. Maybe this time will be different. “We really want to catch people who are living on the streets or are newly homeless,” Neysa says. “Our goal is to get people rapidly rehoused.” Neysa helps guests every step of the way, from filling out a housing application and obtaining necessary paperwork to looking for a place that meets their needs and budget. A few weeks later, Neysa delivers the good news that the guest’s experience of homelessness is over. Sometimes she has to repeat herself because people can’t believe what they’re hearing – disappointments have become so common. But as Neysa reassures them, guests become excited, and the light in their eyes returns. Some weep with joy. Some thank her profusely. One man was so happy about getting his own place that he stayed home for a month, simply because he could. “Being housed is like heaven to people,” Neysa says. “They can take a shower when they want, can eat when they want. They really cherish the privacy because it has been so long since they’ve had privacy.”

Since the ESG began 18 months ago, more than 50 guests have found housing. Neysa hopes to double that number. Each story touches her deeply, because so many guests become homeless through no fault of their own. Some lose jobs and then lose their housing. Some become homeless because of illness or a traumatic event. Others live with relatives or friends and lose their housing when a loved one passes away.

That was the case with Antonia, a woman in her late 40s who came to Neysa for help last year. Antonia suffers from Lupus and had lived with her elderly mother long-term, but had never been added to the lease. When her mother died unexpectedly, Antonia was forced to leave the apartment; she had just $300. Neysa helped Antonia qualify for a room, and before moving day, Neysa provided Antonia with a starter kit that included necessities such as silverware and plates, bedding, toiletries, towels, and information about local resources. “Robert Branconnier started the kits years ago,” she explains. “Now I’m continuing the good work he did.” Neysa can’t wait for the holidays, because she knows how special they will be for people like Antonia: “She was broken when she became homeless. Now her smile lights up the lobby.”