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When Erin moved into the Medford shelter in January, the 39-year-old mother finally felt a measure of hope.
She’d made a wrenching break with her old life, fleeing an emotionally abusive relationship and signing up at a technical school to study medical office administration. She quickly secured a voucher and enrolled her 3-year-old son in preschool.
The illness sweeping China was on her radar, but barely. It seemed like people were overreacting.
Then, in the space of a few days, her world imploded: Her son’s preschool shut down. Her own school moved online. And the small income she’d earned walking dogs evaporated, as did, seemingly, her fresh start.
“This is what I came to do, and it literally stopped just as it started,” said Erin, who asked to be identified only by her first name.
Now she spends her time confined to two dorm-like rooms, doing classwork while trying to entertain her young son. He was able to bring just three toys to the shelter: a train set, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a beloved stuffed dog. Erin doesn’t have a laptop, so she writes out her assignments by hand, photographing her work and e-mailing the images to her instructor.
“I feel totally helpless,” she said. “It's like being under attack.”
Now, with the state plunged into a deep freeze to halt the coronavirus, these homeless families are struggling to secure basic necessities. Crowded facilities make social distancing nearly impossible. Food pantries are desperately strained, and with schools shut down and people out of work, homeless families are pinned down in rooms that are not their own, facing weeks that threaten to stretch into months of uncertainty.
As the end of March approached, food stamps were running low, and many homeless families, lacking transportation, were scrambling to find basics like diapers and canned foods. Many of those who were working have been laid off, adding to the strain.
“We’re in disaster-relief mode,” said Danielle Ferrier, chief executive of Heading Home, which provides housing and services to some 1,400 people in Greater Boston annually and runs the shelter Erin now calls home. “The pressures are fast and hard.”
There is hope for relief for some, with the city promising housing vouchers to 1,000 families with children in Boston Public Schools who are homeless or living precariously. (Half of those vouchers are new, and half were announced before the virus.) The first of the families will be placed in housing in May, the city said. Still, thousands of homeless families who do not have kids in school will not be eligible for housing.
The scenes unfolding across the region are staggering: In Somerville, a homeless family of four has huddled in the same room for two weeks, the father using his phone to work from his twin bed while his son uses the family laptop for school. A mother of two had left her shelter in Brighton, temporarily doubling up with four others at a family member’s home. In Roxbury, a mother of two sharing an apartment with another family prayed her sore throat had nothing to do with COVID-19.
“The vast majority of our response to homelessness has been putting families into shared spaces,” said Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. “That could be a disaster for families.”
* * *
Darling Pierre wanted to bring some lightness to the day.
Her kids, a 1-year-old who goes by the nickname Dish and a 9-year-old who goes by the nickname Dash, had been home for more than a week. Pierre had been working at McDonald’s while studying for her associate degree, but the company had drastically cut her hours. She guessed she had about $30 of food stamps left for the rest of the month — $5 a day. Her cellphone had been briefly disconnected, and the car insurance bill had just arrived.
And on top of it all, her day-care center had been shuttered, with a large portion of Dish’s much-needed diapers locked inside.
Pushing her cascading worries aside, Pierre turned up the Beach Boys anthem “Barbara Ann" and gathered her two children in the sparsely furnished living room of their Dorchester shelter.
“This is my song,” said Pierre, who is 31. “Ready?”
Ba ba ba ba Barbara Ann, the Beach Boys crooned.
Pierre began to clap, and Dash followed her, bouncing and twirling and scooping up her little brother so he could join in.
FamilyAid Boston, which runs the Dorchester shelter, has been working around the clock to distribute emergency supplies of toilet paper, diapers, and pantry staples to about 300 families who are either on the verge of being homeless, are currently homeless, or have just moved out of a shelter. Caseworkers are calling families every day. But the collective need is overwhelming.
“There’s no help coming to these families,” said Larry Seamans, the president of the organization, which aims to end family homelessness in Greater Boston. “They can’t wait, and neither can we.”
Pierre hasn’t been sleeping well. Her children want to sleep in her bed; as uncertainty abounds, they want her reassuring presence. And so she lies awake beside them, her mind racing. The apartment is more cluttered than Pierre likes; on a recent morning, the kids’ clothes were soaking in the bathroom sink.
“Right now, I don’t think I want to sit around in the laundromat,” she said.
Her children still spend time with their elderly grandmother, while Pierre picks up odd delivery jobs. She is worried about her mother’s health, but she doesn’t have another option for child care.
“I’ll pray for you,” Pierre recalled telling her mother when she sent her daughter over to play, wearing a mask.
Unable to attend fourth grade, Dash was trying to make the best of things in her temporary home, too.
In between doing math homework on the Chromebook provided by Stoughton Public Schools ("Everyone calls me ‘the fractions queen,’” she explained), she spent a good deal of time watching out for Dish, who, when he was not destroying her Lego creations, made an affable playmate.
The 1-year-old amused himself for hours with a toy truck and pored over his favorite book, “BooBoo: A Small Gosling with a Big Appetite.”
“Yeah, because that’s him,” Dash said. “That sure is him.”
It was almost dinnertime. Social distancing, which public health officials have recommended to slow the spread of coronavirus, was difficult with money and food stretched so tight. Instead, Pierre and her neighbor, a mother living with two kids in a shelter apartment upstairs, were pooling their resources, sharing a meal of tortellini with tomato sauce, iceberg salad with crispy chicken, and garlic bread.
“[She] chef-ed it up!” Pierre said of her neighbor.
* * *
When she gave birth in January, Karla Kiser had nowhere to go.
She had already obtained a restraining order against her daughter’s father. Her family had no room for her, and her daughter, born three weeks early, was going to need medical care.
So when a room at the Medford shelter opened up, Kiser had to move fast.
“It was crazy,” said Kiser, 36, who went straight from the hospital to the shelter. “When I got there, it was like ‘Wow. OK, what do I do?’ "
Now she lives in a single room in the same large old home as Erin, who also arrived in January with her toddler son. They share the shelter’s kitchen, its living room, and common areas with the other families, many of whom have small children.
Kiser socializes some, but she’s largely been on self-imposed lockdown for the past few weeks, going only to the kitchen, to protect her newborn daughter.
“I’ll wait for everybody to be in their room before I venture out,” said Kiser, who uses government assistance to store what food she can in the shared kitchen. “I just don’t want kids sneezing on her or touching her.”
She wakes up throughout the night, worrying as she nurses her baby girl, who’s made uncomfortable by gastrointestinal problems and an umbilical hernia.
But with hospitals groaning under the weight of COVID-19, Kiser has had trouble getting a doctor to see them.
“Her appointments have been pushed back,” Kiser said. “So it’s me trying to get her down to sleep, trying to soothe her because her stomach hurts.”
She does what she can to keep her daughter engaged with toys and books, relying on her phone for games and video chats. But the cramped quarters offer few distractions. She doesn’t have a car. She doesn’t have someone to help her raise her daughter, and it has her reconsidering.
“I’m currently thinking of modifying the restraining order,” she said. “At least her father can be a part of her life and be more supportive. . . . We’ll just see how that goes.”
Erin, meanwhile, remains focused on finding their “forever home.”
Like Kiser, Erin arrived at the shelter fleeing a bad relationship. She’d planned her escape meticulously, secreting away her most cherished objects to a cousin’s home. She shopped for homewares online, surreptitiously sending her purchases to the same address.
But when they arrived at the shelter, she carried only a handful of sentimental possessions: photographs of her late parents, her son’s baby blanket, and his stuffed dog, Zoe.
Now her long-planned liberation seems like a lifetime ago. Her son has added to his toy collection, but her food stamps don’t go nearly as far now that he’s no longer eating breakfast, lunch, and snacks at preschool. And at 3, her son sometimes struggles to understand why he can’t see his friends, go to their old home, or even go outside to play.
She is grateful for all the support she receives, clinging to the weekly donation of groceries just past their prime, and the food her son’s preschool recently delivered.
“We’re basically just surviving,” she said. “Getting by day to day.”