Politics and the City: Open Sky shelter caseworkers stay course during housing 'crisis'
WORCESTER — Tears came to Nahani Meuse’s eyes as she described how she feels when she gets to tell a homeless client that they had found them stable housing.
“It’s incredibly rewarding,” Meuse, the shelter operations manager at Open Sky Community Services, said on Wednesday. “So many have been homeless for a long time and they get to the point where they don’t believe it will ever happen.
“But when you’re able to tell somebody you have a unit and don’t have to worry about where to sleep, don’t have to worry about where their next meal comes from, and don’t have to worry about whether they will be safe, it’s just so rewarding.”
Thankfully, Meuse said she has felt those emotions many times recently in her role at the Seeds of Hope shelter at Blessed Sacrament Church — she and staff have housed 30 people, including five veterans, since December.
“I’ve never seen these numbers before, and I’ve worked in homeless services in Worcester for 14 years,” Meuse said.
The Seeds of Hope shelter opened Dec. 19 in the parish center at Blessed Sacrament and has sheltered at least 60 people every night since. It offers not only food and a warm place to curl up and sleep, but also mental and physical health care, social services, recovery coaching for those suffering from addiction, and more.
“It’s not just a shelter for people to sleep for a night,” Meuse said. “We wanted to provide the wraparound services — housing navigation, recovery coaches, physical and mental health providers — that people need.”
Shelter slated to close
In total, 128 patrons have stayed overnight at the shelter, which boosted its capacity during snowstorms and cold snaps, and 163 have received services there, Meuse reported.
But the shelter is closing March 31.
As a result, the hunt is on to find clients a place to stay by that time.
“The goal is to have a safe operation for everyone to go to, if they choose,” Meuse said.
Meuse said some of the clients will go to other shelters, some will likely return to campsites in the woods, others may go to treatment programs. Meuse reported even helping one client fill out forms to get student loans.
“We’re meeting each individual where they’re at,” Meuse said. “We want to make sure we’re supporting them in the best way possible to meet (their) goals…they will still have a lifeline to success.”
But the number of people going to housing units throughout the area — in addition to the 30 that Meuse and staff have placed, Open Sky said support programs have sheltered 58 people since December — is something to be celebrated.
“Seeds of Hope saved lives, in addition to changing the lives of the participants through the love, compassion, care and wraparound services they received,” District 5 Councilor Etel Haxhiaj said in an email. “I am grateful that 30 more people now have homes, supportive services and more are on the path of being connected to care they didn't have before. I wish every single person transitioned to a safe and permanent home.”
So what led to this success?Meuse and other leaders at Open Sky cited the Housing First model, which focuses on first finding shelter for homeless individuals and using that as a starting point to working with clients to address other issues that may have led to their homelessness, as key to success.
Combined with the wraparound support services offered at the shelter — during our interview, for instance, health care providers with the UMass Memorial Health Road to Care mobile clinic were meeting with clients — this method of rapidly rehousing and providing services has served clients well, Open Sky leaders said.
“I attribute the success of this operation to the model of care that Open Sky implemented: connecting each person to the supportive services they need, while securing safe housing options, where they are possible,” Haxhiaj said. “We know this is what works to keep people permanently housed.”
The shelter also had another tool for helping clients: collaboration.
Although some in the neighborhood initially voiced concerns and had a lot of questions about the shelter, Open Sky has held monthly neighborhood meetings to ensure the neighborhood was kept up to date on goings-on.
“Open Sky, the city and all neighbors worked together to address and navigate any issues that the neighborhood experienced — operations like this cannot be successful without everyone's compassion and collaboration,” Haxhiaj said. “I am thankful to Open Sky staff, the resources the city allocated to support neighborhood concerns, to neighbors and all volunteers.”
There were also many other partners collaborating with shelter staff — nonprofit entities providing homeless services; public safety and governmental departments; corporate sponsors who donated food, blankets and more; and private citizens who volunteered — that contributed to the shelter’s success.
“Without (these partnerships), we would have had less success with placements,” Meuse said.
Richard, 55, was one of those placed; he will be commuting to his job at Walmart from an apartment in Southbridge.
Richard said he had applied to 30-35 apartments and — despite having a job and income, a housing voucher and being an Army veteran — he was rejected from each one.
Richard said he was apprehensive about being on his own. He hasn’t lived alone since 2016, he said, and has medical issues that make him worry about getting help at all hours of the night.
But Meuse said she would set him up with a Life Alert, and ensure a visiting nurse would visit. Richard seemed reassured.
“It’s nice to have your own apartment,” Richard concluded.
Meanwhile, a similar hunt for a home — albeit one where there is a little more time — is on for a winter shelter.
“We’re very appreciative of Rev. Thomas Landry (pastor of Blessed Sacrament), but we will not be coming back here,” Ryan Johnston, vice president of integrated care at Open Sky, said.
Johnston and Lorie Martiska, vice president of advancement at Open Sky, said that the organization would be debriefing on what went well at the shelter, what could be changed for the future, and more. However, the arrangement with Blessed Sacrament and the city and neighborhood was for just a winter at this location, they said.
Meantime, March 31 is fast approaching. So the hunt for housing goes on. And unfortunately, it will continue long beyond the end of the month as the housing crisis continues.
“It is a crisis,” Meuse said. “For every person we get housed, there are three, four or five people who need services like this.
“There are just no easy answers. We all are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and we need to be aligning.”