At the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Hyde Park is an all too rare thing in Boston nowadays: a housing success story.
It’s here, in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse that Shamia Chaparro has finally found a home, after years of bouncing around the local emergency shelter system — from Lynn to Dorchester — with her three children.
“For me, it’s been a game-changer,” said the 34-year-old single mother as she was about to prepare supper. A Spider-Man cartoon played on the television, and a Christmas tree was already on display, with lights, but no ornaments yet.
Her three children — Zoeth, 14, Zedwis, 9, and Zavian, 3 — flitted in and out of the room.
“We kept going from home to home,” said Chaparro. “It didn’t feel like home. It was just a long waiting process.”
All told, Chaparro spent eight years in the state’s emergency shelter system. Her story is a simple one: She was working in retail and money became tight. As the only income-earner for her household, Chaparro couldn’t afford an apartment large enough for her family in Greater Boston.
Raised in South Boston and Dorchester, Chaparro at first stayed with her mother, who was living in public housing. But there simply wasn’t enough space in the one-bedroom apartment.
She entered the shelter system, first through the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance, then eventually landed emergency housing at sites managed by Heading Home, a local housing provider. Chaparro tried to stay positive, she said, as “being mad all the time makes you grow old and ugly.” Plus, Chaparro wanted to set an example for her kids, and she wanted them to be happy, not embittered.
“Tomorrow’s not even guaranteed,” she said as Zavian played with action figures on her lap. “I just want to love my children today.”
Eventually, through the help of Heading Home, she landed a Section 8 voucher and two months ago moved into the townhouse in Hyde Park, which was fully furnished thanks to the nonprofit arm of the Boston Bruins. She has a case worker who checks in to help with whatever she may need, from winter coats to book bags to Christmas gifts.
At her table, Chaparro talked about the little things that make a house a home. She gushed about how much space she has. Here, her kids have enough room to be kids, she said. The basement can be turned into a play room, and they even have a backyard. She doesn’t have to worry about sharing communal space with other people who may have different cleanliness standards, leaving her to take out their trash to avoid attracting mice.
“I was hoping one day I’d get out of that situation,” Chaparro said. “One day, I’ll take out my own trash.”
On the cusp of the holiday season, it’s a scenario many in the maxed-out shelter system can only dream of, a fact that Chaparro recognizes, saying she continues to be shocked about the crisis.
Just this week, state officials announced they are converting conference rooms in the state transportation building in Boston into congregate shelter sites in an effort to protect homeless migrant families as temperatures dip. It’s intended to be a short-term solution for about 25 families.
For decades, homeless families have been guaranteed shelter under a 1980s-era law in Massachusetts, the only state with a right-to-shelter requirement. But Governor Maura Healey recently decided to limit how many people could live in the shelter system, pushing those beyond the 7,500-family cap to a newly created wait list. And recently, lawmakers failed to reach a deal on a wide-ranging spending bill, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars designed to sustain the emergency shelter system in limbo.
“There’s a lot of people out there that actually are in need right now,” said Chaparro. “It’s just so sad.”
Danielle Ferrier, the chief executive of Heading Home, ticked off the factors contributing to the ongoing housing crisis: supply is simply not keeping up with demand, too many landlords are hesitant to rent to younger tenants, wages have not kept up with the cost of living, the college student population is straining availability for others, and an immigration crisis has exacerbated problems.
“When you start to put all those pieces together, you end up with a worst-case firestorm,” Ferrier said.
On any given night, Ferrier’s organization houses about 350 families in Greater Boston. Chaparro’s eight-year wait in various shelters appears to be an outlier; the average wait time for permanent housing in Boston for that population is usually 1½ years. Outside Boston, the wait can range from nine months to a year. Larger units are harder to find. It’s a problem with no easy solutions. Ferrier’s organization is building a 20-unit apartment building in Dorchester, but that process has taken six years, she said.
“You cannot build your way out of this in the traditional way that people think about,” Ferrier said.
The crisis may “get rougher before it gets better,” she warned. “It won’t be as fast as people want it to be. You can’t move systems that fast. You can’t put up housing stock that fast.”
In Hyde Park, Chaparro is preparing to host her first Thanksgiving. There will be rice and beans, cornbread, green beans, lasagna, and turkey, of course. Cookies and brownies are on the dessert menu. Her mother will help her prepare the meal. Chaparro plans on having 10 relatives over, including her parents, siblings, and some cousins.
Chaparro still works in retail at a local clothing store, although she’s enrolled in a program to become a medical assistant. She has to work the morning of Black Friday, and her mother will watch the children. The holiday is making it sink in, Chaparro said: this is her home now.
“I never been so grateful in my entire life,” she said.