Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mass. State Senator, Jamie Eldridge on Homelessness

For me, homelessness is one of those issues that I’ve been aware of since before high school, but never really got into my head until the spring of 2001. That spring, I was working as a Legal Aid lawyer for Merrimack Valley Legal Services in Lowell. Most of my work as a lawyer was focused on representing poor people being evicted from their apartments. It was generally a satisfying job, as I was able to delay evictions so that the tenants had enough time to move to another apartment or move in with members of their families living elsewhere.

In April 2001, I received a call from the city of Lowell, indicating that a sewer pipe had broken in the middle of the night in the basement of an apartment complex, forcing the city to evacuate the entire building. The tenants were scattered all over the city, but many of them had been put up by the landlord at a nearby Motel 6. For the most part, the belongings of these families, mostly poor, were irretrievable due to the damage made by the broken sewer pipe. Given this overnight reality, these families needed legal assistance to determine what damages they might be owed.

I raced over to the Motel 6 with a colleague of mine, and we began interviewing each of the families, one by one. Each family had a small hotel room, and while the children considered the stay at the hotel quite an adventure, you could see the stress already rising on the faces of the mothers and fathers, thinking about their next steps.

Unfortunately, the landlord of the building was already thinking of his next step. While I began preparing the housing court cases for the families in order to compensate them for losing everything in the apartment accident, the landlord sent his associates to the different motels and hotels where his former tenants were staying, and offered to pay them anywhere between $1-3,000 to sign a disclaimer waiving their rights to go to court over their lost property. Half of the families, scared about where they would live once their hotel stays ended, took the payoffs, which would barely pay for a month’s rent in most apartments available in Lowell.

Focusing my energies on the families that held out for a fairer settlement, I began calculating the true losses of these families, to be ready for the trial. I thought we had a good case, and it was a real pleasure working with these families, all of them hard-working and just wanting to get a fair shake from a raw deal. Because the landlord rebuffed my initial offer of a settlement, after consulting with my clients, we went to trial.

The Lowell Housing Court, located inside the Lowell Superior Court, a tall, grey forbidding building, is always chaotic as attorneys, tenants and landlords meet to discuss their cases. Most housing cases go first to a Housing Mediator, to see if a settlement can be reached and avoid a potentially costly trial before a housing judge. Unfortunately, this often means that both landlords and tenants are pressured into giving up their day in court in exchange for a settlement.

That day was no different, and what it meant was my bringing an offer to the families that was less than my estimate of their actual losses. After all, these families had lost all of their belongings in just a few chaotic hours, had no apartment to return to, and were still dealing with how their lives had changed in just one week. I pulled up a chair to one of the long tables in the courthouse, explaining to one man, an immigrant from Central America, about what the offer was on the table.

The offer, while substantial, would not make up for the families’ losses, and the husband began to cry. The pressure was too much, as I envisioned him calculating how far he and his family could go with the money being offered. His children, still treating the past week as an adventure, suddenly grew quiet as they observed their father, so strong, trembling with uncertainty about his next steps.

That, for me, was when I finally realized what it meant to be homeless. No control over your life, with inadequate resources, and the unbearable trauma of thinking where your family would sleep that night. When I think about the different resources, programs, and budgets that Massachusetts provides to prevent homelessness throughout the Commonwealth, I think of that one family struggling to maintain their dignity in that courthouse, not knowing where they were going to live.  -- Jamie Eldridge

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