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Joan Vennochi

‘We’re depending on you’

Protecting homeless kids requires more than a photo op

Horizons for Homeless Children

Senator Scott Brown reads to kids at Horizons for Homeless Children.

SENATOR SCOTT Brown got the pretty picture every politician covets as he read to a gaggle of cute kids at Horizons for Homeless Children in Roxbury.

There was a serious message behind it. “We’re depending on you,’’ chief development officer Meryl Sheriden told Brown at the end of his recent visit to the facility, which serves homeless families.

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The children spend days at the center and nights at shelters, and Brown seemed touched by his interaction with them. But he was noncommittal when staff members reminded him that their program would be affected by the automatic spending cuts that federal agencies face after failure by a bipartisan supercommittee to identify $1.2 trillion to reduce the deficit.

“They missed an opportunity,’’ he said of the supercommittee. He then predicted they would “get back to it’’ so Congress could “look at cuts in a more thoughtful manner.’’

Afterwards, as he dashed toward his waiting SUV, an aide tried to protect him from followup questions with the same fervor Matt Light uses in protecting Tom Brady from sacks. Asked if it’s possible to keep the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge that he took, along with fellow Republicans, and still commit to homeless kids, Brown barked, “That has nothing to do with sequestration. See you later.’’ With that, he slammed the car door shut, and his aide drove them off.

A spokeswoman who called afterwards to ask about our encounter e-mailed this response to the same query: “Scott Brown made a pledge only to the people of Massachusetts, not anyone else. But he believes we should cut wasteful spending, rather than raising tax rates to pay for the waste.’’ She also said that programs that protect “the most vulnerable citizens’’ are very important to Brown and cited his efforts to preserve affordable housing, disaster relief, and the low-income home energy assistance program.

Maybe Brown was cranky about a new poll that put Democrat Elizabeth Warren up by 7 points. The 49-42 percent margin in the survey, done for the UMass-Lowell by Princeton Survey Research, included voters who said they were “leaning’’ toward voting for Warren; minus the “leaners,’’ Warren led by 5 points. The poll also showed that 48 percent of those surveyed have a favorable view of Brown - down from 52 percent in September. However, the election is still 11 months off, and more than half of those polled said they could still change their mind.

After a stunning victory over Democrat Martha Coakley in the 2010 special election to succeed the late Senator Ted Kennedy, Brown must convince voters he still represents an independent way of thinking, not a right-wing one. The national Republican message is not popular here. So far, voters have seen a combination of negative advertising against Warren that is funded by a Karl Rove-backed nonprofit advocacy group and events where Brown can showcase empathy.

After watching a short documentary at Horizons for Homeless Children, Brown swiftly connected the hardships depicted in the film to his own hardscrabble childhood. “I lived in 17 houses by the time I was 18. I understand the challenges,’’ he said. Does he? To be homeless means more than moving from home to home; it means to be without one.

Brown detailed a difficult youth in his book, “Against All Odds,’’ including a physically abusive stepfather and a camp counselor who sexually abused him. Yet he also said that when he votes on government assistance programs, he is not influenced by his own background, including the welfare benefits he and his mother received. He believes in triumph via self-reliance, and sees no contradiction with his personal narrative.

Staff members at Horizons for Homeless Children were happy Brown gave them a hearing and believe he focused on their needs. (They have also tried, so far unsuccessfully, to get Senator John Kerry to stop by.) “We want to amplify our issue and put it on his radar,’’ said Kelley Gossett, director of state policy and advocacy. “A lot goes into what makes homeless families homeless. He needs to know the issues.’’

For those children who climbed into Brown’s lap and clutched at his tie, those issues are more than a photo op moment.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan Vennochi.
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