For people experiencing homelessness across the United States, COVID-19 hit hard. Sudden closures of the services people relied on, and limited access to basic needs created an additional barrier for those already scraping by. For the City of Boston and St. Francis House, the concern immediately turned to the health and safety of our guests. We knew that crowded day and night shelter conditions would accelerate the virus’ spread, and many organizations dove into creative partnerships to try to alleviate that concern.
When the City of Boston reached out to St. Francis House to help coordinate access to a program called Barrier Buster, we jumped into action.
The Barrier Buster Fund assists individuals/adults-only households experiencing short, medium, and long-term homelessness with a small, one-time payment to move to a permanent housing destination as quickly as possible. While the program existed previously, the new COVID-19 parameters allowed for more flexibility – by reducing paperwork, being more flexible with the type of costs supported, and increasing staff accessibility, more people could tap into the funding and reduce the congestion in the shelters.
St. Francis House identified two staff members from the Workforce Development Department to quickly adjust their roles and schedules to accommodate the needs of the Barrier Buster program. Ashley Cilenti, Employment Services Supervisor, and Arda Kanberoglu, Outreach and Engagement Counselor, began planning quickly – developing marketing plans for guests and internal/external staff to learn about the program, working alongside St. Francis Maintenance and Facilities teams to re-organize the Workforce Department to allow for social distancing, coordinating with the Recovery Support Center to engage with existing clients, and changing their own work schedules. Seven days a week, one of them is always on duty from 9 to 5, and they each spend two days a week at St. Francis House to meet clients in person.
“It took a bit getting used to shifting my focus from jobs to housing, but the two go hand in hand,” Ashley said. “With shelter becoming such an immediate need due to COVID, I was more than happy to take this new role on.” She estimates that, to date, she and Arda have helped over 30 guests take advantage of Barrier Buster funding, although the number of people they’ve spoken to about the program and other services is much higher (over 150 people). “I’ve always found it extremely rewarding when someone I’ve worked with finds a job. The same goes for when one of our guests finds housing.”
Arda shared similar sentiments. “It’s great having another way to support our guests. Barrier Buster has given us a lot of insight into housing resources our guests didn’t know about before, and being able to provide that information to our guests has been a great opportunity.”
Both Arda and Ashley noted that a key player in this work was Gabi Vacheresse, a Housing Search Manager at HomeStart, whose previous knowledge of the program, constant support, and quick responses allowed them to move people through the application process as smoothly as possible.
While some of those helped by the Barrier Buster Fund do go into longer-term housing, many are just looking for a short-term respite, a way to keep them safer from COVID-19 and to stabilize their living situations. With the help of Barrier Buster, St. Francis House guests have been moving into sober homes, rooms for rent, or with family members or friends who are able to offer them a temporary place to stay. The flexible funding allowed to pay back utilities, bus tickets, storage fees, broker fees, first last month rent, etc.
A few of the guests they’ve helped have reached back out to show their gratitude.
The team supported one woman on a cross-country move, where she can stay safely with family. The day before she left, she sent an e-mail saying “Thank you so much. I’m so happy to go home. It’s been so hard for me to be homeless in Boston. I commend you Arda and your fellow workers and Boston for all the work you do. I never expected such a world hardship to fall on us all. I will keep you all in my prayers. God Bless Boston.”
The first guest they placed sent a text message (above) after her first night out of the shelter- “…Just wanted to say I got here kinda late last night but woke up literally with tears of joy and gratitude. Thank you and your colleagues from the bottom of my heart. It’s really nice here, and the energy feels so neutral and still.”