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Homeless to home for Thanksgiving

Diana Dinapoli sits at the table in the shared kitchen of her apartment building in Salem, where she will cook a holiday meal.

Diana Dinapoli sits at the table in the shared kitchen of her apartment building in Salem, where she will cook a holiday meal.

SALEM — For the first time since 2009, Diana Dinapoli has a home at Thanksgiving. She plans to make full use of it today.

Brimming with gratitude, the former teacher’s aide, 63, will be cooking up a storm for a dozen neighbors new and old. The new ones share a kitchen and bathrooms with her in supportive Seeds of Hope Housing , offered through Lifebridge , a Salem nonprofit. The rest reside where she spent last Thanksgiving: next door in Lifebridge’s shelter for homeless men and women.

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Now Dinapoli can finally relax after a stretch of homelessness that traced to depression, anxiety, and poor decisions, she says. With a calm environment and privacy restored, her anxiety is manageable — so manageable that she’s ready to host a turkey feast.

“This place has been an absolute godsend,” Dinapoli says. “If I hadn’t found the shelter and then this [housing], I would have been dead someplace.”

Settling into a stable home, Dinapoli is more fortunate than many others. The Massachusetts homeless population has grown by 10.2 percent from 2007 to 2011 — the fifth-highest growth rate in the nation — to about 16,500, according to estimates from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.  

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Moving into affordable housing often takes several years because of long waiting lists and limited supply, according to Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary for the agency in Massachusetts.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Marckendy Casimir and his son, Natavius, 6, are celebrating their first Thanksgiving in their Malden home.

“It’s becoming much more difficult to get access to a rental assistance voucher, because the federal government has not provided new vouchers in many years,” Gornstein says. “We’re relying on turnover of existing vouchers.”

‘‘This place has been an absolute godsend. If I hadn’t found the shelter and then this, I would have been dead someplace.’

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North of Boston, thousands experience a hidden homelessness, housing specialists and advocates say. Last year, HUD tallied about 2,000 homeless people on a given day in and around the region’s cities — Gloucester, Lynn/Salem, Haverhill, Malden, and Somerville. Advocates say that estimate for the region might be very low.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Robyn Frost, executive director of the Lynn-based Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. “Many who are living in poverty are on the fringe of having nowhere to live. They’re living in doubled-up situations, they’re moving from place to place . . . They don’t know [from day to day] where their heads will be laying.”

Despite challenges, more than 10,000 households have moved from state-supported shelter into permanent affordable housing since mid-2009, Gornstein says. Those who made the leap this year are counting their blessings as Thanksgiving arrives.

In Malden, Marckendy Casimir, 34, and his son, Natavius, 6, will host family members today for a traditional Haitian rice-and-beans fest. They’ll do a lot of singing and praying, Casimir says, in gratitude for the roof that’s helped them leave miserable conditions behind.

“This is going to be a new beginning for my life,” Casimir says.

He never expected to be homeless. Having emigrated from Haiti at age 16, he lived with his mother and three sisters in Everett, where he worked security and other jobs. But as more family members arrived, he decided 12 people in a three-bedroom apartment would be too crowded. He rented a $400-a-month room and continued to support his mother.

For years he moved often, living in unheated basements and sharing kitchens with thieves. But earning less than $10 per hour, he struggled to keep up with rising rents.

After Natavius was born, Casimir took a bus-driving job, where he paid his employer $45 a week to keep his son with him in the bus. But the company later said Natavius could no longer ride along. Casimir had to quit, he says, leaving him with no job, no day care, and a landlord pounding the door late at night for overdue rent. They ended up in a shelter, then in a state-funded, roach-infested motel where mice ate their bread while they slept.

“It was terrible,” Casimir recalls. “My son was asking me all the time, ‘Where are we going? Whose house is that?’ He wanted to know who’d be coming around. . . . I didn’t know what to say to him. I’d try to avoid answering the question.”

For almost a year now, Natavius has been sleeping well in their two-bedroom apartment, which is supported by Housing Families, a Malden nonprofit. He’s doing well in kindergarten, says Casimir, who will begin studying in January to become a police officer. Before the apartment came through, he had spent almost six years on a waiting list for Section 8 affordable housing.

Casimir’s situation sounds familiar to advocates. Most homeless people had homes not long ago, but lost capacity to make ends meet in challenging economic times, says Frost. As stability disappears, children often suffer.

“Kids need to have a home,” says Yvonne Vissing, a Salem State University sociologist and author of “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Homeless Children and Families in Small-Town America.” “It’s where they can put stuff, their possessions. It’s where they can invite people over and have friends and neighbors who watch out for them. It’s where they have some longevity. It’s much more than just a physical shelter.”

State funding has increased in recent years for programs aimed at preventing homelessness and supporting transitions to permanent housing. Since July, families in state-supported shelters have had access to $4,000 in HomeBASE  program funds to help them resettle.

Meanwhile, those with new homes are savoring the basics. Dinapoli has a simple set-up: single bed, window, small refrigerator, curtained closet. She’s warmed it up with personal touches: small ceramic teapots, photos of her three grown children, a 1959 shot of her extended family. Now when friends come over, she delights in sharing the joys of home.

“Once a month, I’ll make a big dinner and have some of the clients from the shelter come over, just so they can get out of the situation and have something halfway decent and quiet,” Dinapoli says. “They love it. . . . With the smell of the kitchen, it’s a homey situation over here.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at g.jeffrey.macdonald@gmail.com.
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