Editorial: Shelter tops shared goals in every caring community



Last modified: Monday, February 29, 2016

What makes a good house-warming gift? Last week, it was a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” for one new Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity homeowner in Easthampton, a Bible for another. Both books speak to our need for meaning.

In their own ways, they also address humanity’s search for security, including the simple blessing of a roof.

Across the river in Amherst, people arrive in a downtown church basement nearly every day to do good together. A new project called the One-Stop Resource Center run by Amherst Community Connections helps those facing hardship find shelter and seek work.

Recent Gazette stories described why people are celebrating in Easthampton and, in Amherst, why they are rolling up their sleeves to help others.

The answer, actually, is simple. Even people who hold jobs and work hard can struggle to get homes of their own, or even apartments. And nonprofits in our region long ago put housing at the center of their missions.

This Friday, the region’s main task force on homelessness will outline its progress over the last year. The event, which starts at 10:30 a.m. at Holyoke Community College, will offer briefings by those who run the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. Mayors and more than a dozen state lawmakers will be on hand, along with human services officials and people who have been homeless. The network set ambitious goals last June and promises to reveal how far it has come.

Fortunately, housing is a central mission for an array of nonprofit groups in the Valley, including Hwei-Ling Greeney’s new resource center, a drop-in center open 45 hours a week in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Society on North Pleasant Street. The new nonprofit, supported by private donations and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, uses volunteers to help people research options for housing. Greeney, a former member of the town Select Board, has made it a personal mission to help those who lack shelter, and her commitment is admirable. She joins older groups like Habitat that continue to make change happen, for one or two families at a time. Since it started in 1989, the local Habitat chapter has built homes for 33 families, 20 of them headed by single mothers. In all, these structures in Hampshire and Franklin counties house 33 adults and 77 children.

There were tears and laughter Feb. 21 at Habitat’s party in Easthampton and some horsing around by happy children. They shared in that closeness that comes when people unite to get hard work done. People celebrated the fact that two families will finally have their own homes in a state that ranks as one of the most expensive housing markets in the U.S, behind only California and Hawaii, according to one 2015 study.

This was a notable achievement for women as well. More than half of the crew mustered over the last year and a half to erect the duplex at 246-248 East St. were women. And both new households are headed by women — Angelique Baker and her three children and Aleta Kennedy and her grandson.

Baker joked that since she was there at the creation, providing the sweat equity that is a Habitat hallmark, she knows this home’s secrets. That includes the hidden place where a novice crew had a little trouble with hammers. “I know where there’s like 500 nails in one place because we kept messing up,” she said.

More than 50 people piled into the kitchen of one of the new homes to share the moment, sing and offer gifts. A few came wrapped. But the real one surrounded them — standing there from foundation to roofline, a durable expression of community connection.


 


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