Cape Cod Copes With Homeless

Residents of Harwich pool efforts to provide family-style lodging, basic assistance to the needy. COMMUNITY ACTIVISM

FOR many people, Cape Cod conjures up images of sand dunes, vast burgundy cranberry bogs, and New England clam "chowdah," not homeless families crammed into stuffy motel rooms. But former truck driver Wes Curtis, his wife, Raylene, and seven-year-old daughter, Tina, lived in a room in the Blue Whale Motel in West Harwich, Mass., for six months. "It sure was cramped," Mr. Curtis says. "Our daughter was getting bored. On rainy days, she could just sit inside and do nothing." Since the Harwich Ecumenical Council found them, the Curtises now live comfortably in a two-bedroom home in the town.

When residents of Harwich, Mass., learned that the Massachusetts Department of Welfare was placing homeless families like the Curtises in motels, they were determined to do better.

"A motel is not the answer to bring up children," says Ed Burns, chairman of Harwich's Committee on Affordable Housing. "It's not helping a child's morale when he or she can't bring friends home...."

To combat this problem, the Harwich Ecumenical Council (HEC), made up of members of eight churches, real estate agents, bankers, and other groups, uses a program that provides a "transitional community" to help homeless families. The council's objective is to house homeless families so that their wage-earning members can concentrate on regaining employment and re-integrate into society.

"There's a great misconception here that we're the sun [and] sand resort, and there's no homelessness on Cape Cod," says Harwich real estate agent Richard Waystack.

During the current recession, more people are becoming homeless on the Cape, where the unemployment rate is 16.2 percent, up from last year's figure of 9.7 percent, according to the Massachusetts Department of Employment and Training.

After living in New Hampshire for the past 12 years, Mr. Curtis decided to move back to his native Cape when he lost his job. Once a driver for construction companies, Curtis has not had his hands on a truck's steering wheel since August.

"People ain't buying houses, so I got no work," he says.

The council has three task forces, which are responsible for finding, funding, and furnishing homes. A Chaplains' Corps of clergy and lay members acts as a liaison between the homeless families and the community.

John Erickson, a member of the Chaplains' Corps, was at first skeptical about the program. "It seemed like a proposition built on good faith," he says, "but from an empirical analysis [the program] seemed improbable." With a broad smile he adds, "But I've been converted!"

With help from retail business owner Bob Murray, a spark plug of the Harwich council, six families have been put into completely furnished homes since the council was formed last December. Two of those families are back on their feet, and no longer need the council's assistance.

The fact that no government money is used in this program makes it unique for Massachusetts, says Ann Murphy, spokeswoman for the state's Executive Office of Community Development. "We would like to see more homeless programs like this and more coordinating between the state departments."

While the Massachusetts Department of Welfare houses homeless families for $1,500 per month in motel rooms, some equipped with hot plates, the Harwich council spends $550 per month to place families in two-bedroom homes, with 1 1/2 baths, kitchen, and dining/living room.

In Hyannis, a few towns away, the Housing Assistance Corporation, a local nonprofit housing agency, issues federal and state subsidies to needy families. Since Massachusetts housing subsidies have "dried up," families are referred to the council for housing, says Allison Cook, program director for the corporation's housing services department. She says there are 85 families living in motels and shelters on the Cape, and 96 additional families are at risk of becoming homeless.

Self-sufficient for many years, 29-year-old single mother Sharyn Varney now finds herself out of work, homeless, and unable to support herself and her 10-month-old daughter on monthly welfare and Aid to Families with Dependent Children checks. She says, m not a bum and I don't like this situation ... if I don't need it, I won't abuse the system."

Ms. Varney has been looking for employment since November 1989. She has distributed 220 resumes to businesses and had 60 interviews. The council found her a home within three weeks of learning about her situation and will continue its support until she's self-sufficient.

EAL estate agents Waystack and Tom Peterson find two-bedroom houses or apartments located in residential neighborhoods. Landlords rent the houses to the Harwich council for below-market rates. The council helps pay the rent for one year, at which point the families should be self-supporting. If they aren't, the council will continue its assistance.

Families contribute a small portion of their income to the rent. "Before entering the program, they were bogged down in the quagmire, thinking, 'I don't have self pride, Mr. Peterson says. "Now, the families take pride in coming in here to pay $25 per month for rent."

The remaining rent is paid by the council, which raised over $30,000 in four months. Georgia Dearborn, head of fund-raising for the council, says, "Since there's no big money in Harwich, every penny, nickel, and dime counts."

Money raised by selling T-shirts, holding dinners and card games, and setting up can and bottle redemption centers has kept the Harwich homeless program alive.

To furnish the homes, people from all corners of Harwich have donated items ranging from toothpaste and kitchen utensils to beds and bureaus. The furniture response was so overwhelming, the council gave some furniture to two Hyannis agencies, Housing Assistance Corporation and the Public Welfare Office.

Once families are placed into homes, the council assigns a "contact person" to act as a liaison between the family and the Harwich community.

"This is the type of program we support," says Michael Mayer, assistant director of policy and program for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a private group in Washington, D.C. "The successful programs are the ones that connect services with housing. You can't just house the families."

Lorraine Jensen, a member of the council who visits a family once a week, says, "We want to integrate them into the community. We want to make them feel this is their community, and they are a respectable part of it."

Volunteers provide transportation to job interviews, pick up garbage, baby-sit, or help with other errands. More important, the liaison is a friend to the family. Volunteer Betty Wildau says she feels like a mother to Sharyn Varney. m here to be understanding," she says. "My purpose is to get through to her by showing her love."

This is only the beginning of what could be a national trend, says council member Murray. His ultimate goal is to raise $100,000, keep fund-raising visible to the community, and have other Cape Cod towns use this program in their community.

The plan is simple enough; any community can adopt it, Mr. Murray says. If the state would provide such an incentive grant to local housing authorities, he adds, social groups such as churches, Rotary Clubs, or gardening clubs could match it.

"It's unconscionable that we allow this [homelessness] to go on when we can do something about it," Murray says. " Harwich isn't different from any other town. Anyone can do what we're doing!"

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