Initiatives to tackle homelessness mark progress

Staff Writer
Published: 3/5/2016 4:08:03 PM

HOLYOKE — Jerome Douchette recalled sitting in his car with a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson gun to his head, depressed, drunk and homeless.

Suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, he had gone through bankruptcy and a divorce after serving four years overseas with the U.S. Navy. He didn’t squeeze the trigger, though.

Instead, he passed out, and the gun fired through a copy of his military records, he told a crowd of about 130 people who gathered at Holyoke Community College on Friday to celebrate the work and progress of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.

“The transition from military to civilian life was very difficult for me and my family,” said Douchette, 33, of Easthampton, as he gave a gripping account of an attempt to take his own life.

Douchette was one of three formerly homeless people who received standing ovations for sharing their firsthand experiences about getting back on their feet with support from the regional, four-county network to end homelessness.

Backed by state and federal government programs and support, the broad-based coalition of public and private entities delivered its first progress report Friday since its inception in 2009.

As part of a new federal plan it adopted called Opening Doors in Western Massachusetts, the network revealed data showing that homelessness has dropped across the board in the region for veterans, families and chronically homeless people.

“For the first time, we are coming together with a wider lens,” an upbeat Pamela Schwartz, executive director of the network, told the crowd, which included state officials, several mayors and more than a dozen area state lawmakers. “There is so much heart in this room, on every level of government and in the community.”

Among the accomplishments reported by the network in the four counties of western Massachusetts in 2015:

• A 27 percent decline in the number of veterans in emergency shelters and on the streets, including 357 homeless and at-risk veterans permanently housed;

• 108 chronically homeless people permanently housed, including 11 chronically homeless families permanently housed, which ended a combined 30 years of homelessness for them;

• A 34 percent reduction in the number of families living in shelters and motels with 647 families moving into permanent housing with state HomeBASE assistance.

• The placement of 80 formerly homeless parents in jobs through the Secure Jobs Connect program and a total of 254 families since the program’s inception in 2013;

The network is committed to ending homelessness among veterans in 2106, chronic homelessness by 2017 and family and youth homelessness by 2020, according to Schwartz, who reminded lawmakers in the room that continued funding is critical to build on the network’s success.

“If the issue of homelessness was ever on the periphery of society, it is no longer there at all,” Holyoke Community College President William Messner said, as he praised the coordinated and multi-year efforts of the many agencies and institutions involved in the network’s goal to end homelessness. “The network exemplifies what’s good about western Massachusetts.”

No longer homeless

For Douchette, who was raised in Holyoke and is the father of a 5-year-old boy, the network’s support system for veterans was critical to helping him turn his life around, including learning about state Chapter 115 veterans’ benefits and the federal HUD-VASH rental assistance program for homeless veterans, he said. He now holds a job, lives with his son in Easthampton and helps other veterans receive the kinds of assistance he once needed when he was in their shoes.

“If it wasn’t for the programs and case management, where would we be?” he left the crowd pondering as he stepped away from the podium Friday, which happened to be his birthday.

Michael LaMothe, 43, of Westfield, talked about his difficult childhood being raised by a single mother of three children and his life as a chronic homeless person while addicted to alcohol and drugs, including crack cocaine.

“When you’re out there on the streets, homeless and addicted, you lose all focus on life,” said LaMothe, who found stable housing through the network and continues to receive substance abuse and mental health treatment. “Most days you don’t eat, unless you have the strength to go to a soup kitchen.”

LaMothe, who was joined by his mother, expressed gratitude to those who supported him through the network to end homelessness and helped move his life in a more positive direction.

“People, pretty much every step of the way saved my life,” he said. “I am a person of society today.”

Joining Douchette and LaMothe in sharing their stories was Gloria Torres, a 35-year-old single mother of three children from Holyoke, who found herself homeless, out of a job and with a car she could not afford to fix. Through the network’s Secure Jobs Connect program, she received the support she needed to begin working as a certified nurse’s assistant, a job she is proud of today. The program helps train and put homeless people to work in western Massachusetts and has a job retention rate of over 80 percent

“I love my job, I love taking care of elderly people,” Torres said. “With this job, I can fix my car, pay for my rent and take care of my children.”

As he handed Torres a plaque that recognizes her courage, strength and success, State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, told her that she is “an inspiration to us, to our community, to other women, other mothers, and other families.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at

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