Housing Assistance Corporation Blog

Homelessness on Cape Cod: One Family's Story

Posted by Chris Kazarian on Thu, Aug 13, 2015 @ 10:11 AM

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There are many ways to celebrate a birthday, but living at a campground with three children is probably not the way 30-year-old Amanda* envisioned the transition to 31 would occur.

But just a few weeks before her 31st birthday, that is exactly where she found herself – homeless, living in a tent with four sleeping bags, one each for her and her children Joseph, 9, Connor, 6, and Beth, 3.

With no vehicle, the family spent the better part of May, June and July relying on the kindness of strangers and the support of HAC to receive the essentials they needed – food and clothing – to survive the outdoors. During one significant storm, HAC was able to temporarily transition them into a local motel for two nights before they returned to the campground.

While many situations involving the Cape’s homeless population handled by HAC are difficult, family housing services department administrative assistant Monica Mitchell was particularly struck by the troubling nature of this one. “This was an extreme situation where they didn’t have anything except the clothes on their back,” Mitchell said.

“It’s been a struggle,” Amanda admitted, sitting on one of five folding chairs situated around a fire pit on a warm, sunny day during the second week of June.

About 20 feet away, on a picnic table covered with a plastic tablecloth sat much of the family’s belongings. There was a plastic bin full of small toys – dinosaurs, rubber balls, action figures and children’s books, all donated by strangers – to keep her kids entertained.

A small cooler was used to keep perishables cold with more important food kept inside the tent so that animals, like the raccoon that visited the night before, would not take what little they had. Food was cooked on either a small portable propane stove or over the fire pit.

“I’m trying to keep it as simple as possible,” Amanda said, when asked what she makes. That meant lots of hot dogs, fresh fruit, vegetables and granola bars.

Trips to the nearby restrooms or showers required bringing the entire family to ensure everyone was safe.

For adventurers seeking a weekend getaway, there is a romantic notion to living like this. But when it is about survival, it is a much different story.

There is a sadness to their situation which Amanda never acknowledged. Her focus, since becoming homeless in April when she left her husband and their religious community, was protecting her children in hopes they will soon have a better, more stable life.

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To that end, HAC staff, along with TEAM M25, have provided the family with everything they need until they are eventually placed into an affordable apartment using HomeBase funds from the state that are intended for extreme cases like this.

These are the small steps called progress, better than having to call a tent your home.

Being homeless is difficult enough and has only been compounded for this family by several factors: according to HAC staff, Amanda appeared to have been mentally abused; they had no belongings; and the children, due to their religion, had never been vaccinated.

Through it all, Amanda has maintained a positive, upbeat attitude, displaying a courage that has impressed Mitchell who has been in contact with her on an almost daily basis this summer. “She has given me an unbelievable amount of strength watching her,” Mitchell said. “She is always calm, always focused. She knows this is a tiny blip and that this too shall pass.”

And it will when the family eventually moves into a three-bedroom apartment on Cape Cod, representing a stability that Amanda and her three children have been seeking for months. “Most of our lives, our whole family has been cramped into one room,” Amanda said. “This will feel like we’ve won the lottery, living in a three-bedroom house.”

She makes the statement as her oldest son, puts the finishing touches on homemade sassafras tea, and her other son rollerblades around the camp site. Her daughter, meanwhile, is taking a nap in the tent that provided them with safety for several weeks in the late spring and summer of 2015 when they had nowhere else to go.

They look as normal as you or I, only they are homeless.

*NOTE: The names of the client in this story have been changed. 

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Tags: Homeless, HomeBASE, homelessness, Cape Cod, TEAM M25

HAC's 41st Annual Meeting Honors Housing Efforts on Cape Cod

Posted by Chris Kazarian on Wed, May 27, 2015 @ 10:16 AM
DSC 7765 resized 600HAC Volunteer of the Year Maura Dankert (far right) with her family, staff from The Village at Cataumet and HAC volunteer Cynthia Goldberg.

A few years ago on a cold winter day, Karen Graveline, Maureen Carser and Dan McCullough found themselves outside battling frigid temperatures, horizontal sleet and freezing rain to check on two homeless women living in a tent not far from Hyannis Harbor.

As they trudged through the brush, and ice began to form on McCullough’s beard and in his colleagues’ hair, they called out, asking the pair, “Can we come in?”

The women, recognizing the voices, zipped open their tent where McCullough, Carser and Graveline, saw them as comfortable as could be, enjoying some food and drink while listening to the radio. “They looked up at us standing out there… And one of them said to us, ‘What are you people doing out there in this weather? Are you crazy?’” McCullough said, relaying the story to those in attendance at HAC’s 41st Annual Meeting & Volunteer Recognition last month at the Cape Codder Resort & Spa in Hyannis.

As the laughter in the audience died down, McCullough acknowledged that perhaps he was not alone. “I guess if we’re doing this kind of work and we’re defining success in such unusual terms, maybe we are crazy,” he said. “But if we are then you know what, there are a lot of you in this room who are crazy too because you’re doing the same thing: HAC’s middle name.”

McCullough and Carser, members of the nonprofit TEAM M25, were celebrated for their “craziness” – others may call it a passion for helping those most vulnerable – at HAC’s annual meeting with the 2014 Human Services Partner Award.

DSC 7455 resized 600Dan McCullough (right) of TEAM M25 with NOAH Shelter Director Greg Bar at HAC's Annual Meeting & Volunteer Recognition. 

In accepting the award, McCullough stressed that TEAM M25’s work – the organization cares for Cape Cod’s homeless that live outdoors – is driven not by success as defined by today’s society. Instead, he aligned success with another word tied to HAC’s work: assistance.

“Working with our people is not like building a boat in your backyard… where neighbors will come in and say, ‘Gee, you’ve been building that boat for 11 years. Is anything going to happen?’” he said. “It’s not that kind of thing. We’re dealing with human beings and we come from a place where we need to define our success in other ways.”

If success is indeed tied to assisting those in need, then it was visible in the award recipients at this year’s annual meeting, including those like the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District (BID) which was chosen as HAC’s Business/Organization Partner of the year.

The BID was instrumental in helping HAC launch the Day Center at NOAH last May as part of a community effort that included the Duffy Health Center, the Hyannis Civic Association, the Town of Barnstable and the Barnstable Police Department. “We think of Hyannis as a downtown with a heart and we want to come together and help people be happier and have a better quality of life,” said Elizabeth Wurfbain, the executive director of BID, explaining why it was so important for the community to provide the region’s homeless with a safe place to go during the day.

This year’s Volunteers of the Year recipients – mortgage loan officer Darin Weeks of Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank and Maura Dankert of Birthday Wishes – are also shining examples of McCullough’s definition of success.

Weeks has been teaching at HAC’s first-time homebuyer class for the past decade, helping “hundreds of families navigate the complex home buying process in purchasing homes here on the Cape,” Cheryl Kramer, manager of HAC’s Housing Consumer Education Center, said.

And once a month over the past six years, Bourne’s Dankert has been providing a little joy to children at The Village at Cataumet by throwing them birthday parties, complete with cake, ice cream, gifts and games. She has extended her monthly volunteerism to include driving families at the shelter to the local food pantry.

Dankert said her reward has been seeing the smiles of parents and their children as they have a few moments of normalcy amid the chaos of living in a homeless shelter. “To give them about an hour and a half of just fun time as they check their stressors at the door is just wonderful,” she said.

Having compassion for clients is something HAC CEO Rick Presbrey highlighted when recognizing employees at the agency – Michael Sweeney, Nancy Davison, Anne Williams, Dolores Barbati-Poore, Marthel Wass, Marie Johnson, Judy Van Buskirk, Lynne Perry, Alison Reid, AnnMarie Torrey, Lil Burlingame, Margaret Benaka and Ann Rebello - who have 20 or more years of service.

David Augustinho, chair of HAC’s executive board, expanded upon this sentiment in his remarks, commending staff for “their depth of knowledge and the empathy for the population they deal with.”

DSC 7755 resized 600HAC's Presbrey Public Service Award winner Paul Ruchinskas with his wife Loretta. 

This year’s recipient of the Presbrey Public Service Award, Paul Ruchinskas of Brewster, also had kind words for the work of HAC as he has had a close relationship with the agency over the past 13 years. During that time, Ruchinskas has served as the affordable housing specialist at the Cape Cod Commission, helping it allocate federal and state funds to support affordable development in the region through the county’s HOME Program.

“Paul Ruchinskas has spent his professional life changing other people’s lives, thousands of families lives he changed for the better in the most fundamental way,” said last year’s Presbrey award winner Larry Brown as he introduced Ruchinskas. “Ask anyone who is homeless. Ask anyone who spent Christmas with their kids in a motel room. I can’t think of a more complex field having to learn and then having to learn the stuff of it and having to learn the way of it, and then to do so much good (as he has).”

Tags: Annual Meeting, HAC, TEAM M25, Maura Dankert, Rick Presbrey, Birthday Wishes, Dan McCullough, Paul Ruchinskas, Hyannis BID

HAC's 41st Annual Meeting Recognizes Housing Efforts on Cape Cod

Posted by Chris Kazarian on Wed, Apr 01, 2015 @ 10:58 AM
DSC 0256 resized 600Dan McCullough (from left) of Team M25, Rick Presbrey and Darin Weeks of the Cape Cod Five pose for a photo at HAC’s main office.

In Bourne, Maura Dankert occasionally runs into children who once lived in shelter at The Village at Cataumet where she has been organizing birthday parties for them over the past six years. “One little girl calls me, ‘the birthday lady,’” Dankert laughed. “I’ve been called so many things and that is the best.”

To be associated with the charitable work you do to help others is one of life’s greatest satisfactions. And on Thursday, April 9, HAC will recognize the work of “the birthday lady” and several others on Cape Cod who have devoted themselves to addressing the region’s housing issues as part of its 41st Annual Meeting & Volunteer Recognition.

“I always look forward to the annual meeting,” HAC CEO Rick Presbrey said. “It is a celebration of what we have achieved in the past year and, in this case, the past 41 years… And it’s always nice to give out awards to recognize people for the work they do with housing on Cape Cod and the Islands.”

Dankert will join Sandwich’s Darin Weeks, a mortgage loan officer from Cape Cod Five, as HAC’s Volunteers of the Year. “I feel completely honored and wasn’t expecting this,” Dankert said. “I feel like I don’t do enough and I feel like I can do more, and we can do more.”

What she has done is provide families at The Village at Cataumet with a sense of normalcy by providing them with cake, ice cream, juice boxes, wrapped presents and a craft as a way to celebrate a child’s birthday. “I feel like they have so many stressors that if I can provide a happy time for an hour and a half where the family is engaged and there are lots of smiles, it’s the least I can do,” she said.

Weeks’ contributions to HAC have been felt for over a decade. He has taught classes at HAC’s first-time homebuyer workshops, serving as an expert for clients who may not know what to expect when purchasing a home on Cape Cod. “There’s no better feeling than helping someone get their first home,” Weeks said.

The Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District (BID) has been selected as the 2014 Business Partner of the Year. The organization has been instrumental in the creation and implementation of the Day Center at NOAH.

DSC 0367 resized 600Matt Pitta (left) of WXTK will once again serve as the MC for this year's annual meeting.

Elizabeth Wurfbain, executive director of the BID, was pleased with the relationship that has developed between HAC, her organization and several other community groups in pushing the day center program forward. “We all are a part of this change and I think if we want to see the change, we have to be the change,” she said, stressing that improving what goes on at NOAH is a priority for the BID. “The ability to help treat the homeless is bigger than you can imagine… It is really important not just to Hyannis, but all of Cape Cod.”

Perhaps no organization does more to help the homeless than Team M25 and next month that nonprofit will be recognized with the Human Services Partner Award. Formed seven years ago, M25 is currently run by Dan McCullough and Maureen Carser who care for the Cape’s homeless living outdoors by providing them with the necessary goods – socks, coats, boots, gloves, tents and food – and services they need to survive.

The Rewards of Helping the Homeless

The work has been immensely gratifying for McCullough, who is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times, a medical ethicist for Cape Cod Hospital and a philosophy and religion professor at Cape Cod Community College. “I’ve gotten a lot more from these people than they’ve taken from me,” he said. “I know - this is not just a Hallmark card - how blessed and fortunate I am. A lot of people pay thousands of dollars to psychiatrists to be convinced things are not as bad as they are. I get that for free every day by working with my people.”

The 2014 Presbrey Public Service Award is going to Brewster’s Paul Ruchinskas, who recently retired as the Cape Cod Commission’s affordable housing specialist.

He and his wife of 42 years, Loretta, moved to Cape Cod in 2001. “Literally going over the bridge and being near or around the water has a soothing effect on the soul,” he said. “I’ve always regarded the Cape as a very, very special place.”

His work with the commission played a role in helping the Cape to retain that character as he administered and managed the county’s HOME Program, utilizing federal and state funds to support affordable development in the region. “I’m proud of the fact the Barnstable County HOME Consortium helped create 1,300 affordable units in the region over its history,” he said. “And I’m most pleased to have played a very small role in helping to make that happen.”

Ruchinskas has been a strong proponent of affordable housing because, “it is a character, quality-of-the-Cape kind of issue. Something every decent society should do is make sure housing is available for folks who live there and work there.” 

To attend this year's Annual Meeting & Volunteer Recognition, please click this link. The event takes place next Thursday, April 9 at 5 pm the Cape Codder Resort & Spa at 1225 Iyannough Road in Hyannis. 

Tags: TEAM M25, Maura Dankert, Rick Presbrey, NOAH Shelter, Birthday Wishes, Dan McCullough, Paul Ruchinskas, Darin Weeks, Cape Cod Five