Advocates for the homeless dispute myths at Greenfield forum

  • Arise for Social Justice Environmental Justice Director Syair Bey discusses the common misconceptions associated with homeless people at the First Congregational Church in Greenfield on Saturday. To the right is Arise Executive Director Tanisha Arena. Staff Photo/David McLellan

  • Arise for Social Justice Homelessness Organizer Johnie Sanders discusses the barriers to affordable housing in Massachusetts. Staff Photo/David McLellan

  • From left, Arise for Social Justice Environmental Justice Director Syair Bey, Executive Director Tanisha Arena and homelessness organizer Johnie Sanders discuss homelessness with members of the Greenfield group Racial Justice Rising on Saturday. Staff Photo/David McLellan

Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2020 9:32:04 AM
Modified: 1/8/2020 9:31:30 AM

GREENFIELD — “All homeless people are lazy.” “All homeless people are on drugs.” “That would never be me.”

Those are a few of the things advocates for homeless people hear all the time. But those advocates will tell you, while ubiquitous, these statements are just not true.

On Saturday, advocates from the Springfield nonprofit Arise for Social Justice spent the morning talking about their work with the homeless with local activists with Racial Justice Rising at the First Congregational Church of Greenfield.

“I want to stop working. I don’t want to have this job because I want these problems to be solved,” said Arise for Social Justice Executive Director Tanisha Arena.

According to Arena, many historical societal issues like racism and militarization have contributed to homelessness, and continue to in 2020.

One thing people can do, Arena said, is become politically active. She said it’s important to vote against politicians who “criminalize homelessness” and who support measures like putting “spikes” on park benches to prevent people from sleeping on them.

“We have to look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘Am I really OK with this?’” Arena said. “You’ve got to get engaged in the political process and get the people out that are doing things that aren’t aligned with your personal values.”

Also important, said Syair Bey, Environmental Justice Director for Arise for Social Justice, is shooting down the misconceptions about homelessness. Bey said many people believe homeless people all look dirty and unkempt, and have little to nothing, but the reality is much different. He said there are many people with cell phones or cars that are homeless, as he once was, but they simply can’t afford housing or don’t qualify for emergency housing from the state.

“I was homeless and I had a job. I had a way to get around. I just didn’t have a place of my own,” Bey said.

Bey and the other panelists agreed that more legal protections should be afforded to tenants, and noted one case in Springfield where low-income tenants who had paid their rent consistently over a decade were suddenly pushed out of their housing because the landlord suddenly raised the rent much higher. In that case, they said, gentrification played a part. The landlord wanted people who were looking to be close to the new MGM Casino — people who had more money — to live in those homes.

Arena said that there are systematic issues that contribute to homelessness, and many people, homeless or not, are unaware of their legal rights. For example, people who are engaged in legal issues with bodies like the Springfield Housing Authority, “the largest landlord in Springfield,” are often sent to district court, but may request to have their case heard in housing court, where judges are more aware of laws related to housing, Arena said.

“The problem is you have to know that,” Arena said. “That’s not spoken anywhere.”

A variety of factors can contribute to homelessness, Arena said, including addiction, domestic violence, trauma, historical racism, natural disasters and poverty. Campaigning against these phenomena is one way to alleviate homelessness, and advocating for policies that help people who are already homeless or in public housing is another, Arena said.

For example, Arise for Social Justice has recently spearheaded campaigns like “We Demand Shuttles,” asking for shuttles to bring people from public housing areas, often on the outskirts of the city, to the central business or commercial districts.

Another campaign addressed the “cold weather policy” in Springfield, in which emergency responders would only seek out homeless people when the weather fell to 10 degrees or below, said Johnie Sanders, homelessness organizer.

According to Sanders, the campaign successfully raised the emergency response threshold to 20 degrees, and the group is still fighting to raise that threshold to 32 degrees.

But some ways groups like Arise for Social Justice help the homeless are very simple and practical, Arena said. The organization offers people a place to shower and allows homeless people to use their address for mail, in order to help them find housing or employment.

There are still many issues with the state’s emergency housing assistance programs, Sanders said, with too many barriers to qualify, including having too high of an income, or having used emergency assistance in the last 12 months.

Arena said the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development should look for ways to make it easier, not harder, to get housing.

“Why would they make it so hard for folks to be housed?” Arena said, encouraging people to call their legislators and ask them to advocate for expanded housing assistance. “You have to be deemed worthy of being housed.”




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