Mark Hayward’s City Matters: Safety first for Families in Transition

Most homeless shelters have the unmistakable air of an institution.

As welcoming and as supportive as caseworkers and shelter managers may be, practicality requires the facilities be easy to keep clean, economical and easy to move people in and out.

So floors are linoleum tile. Walls are painted dirt-camouflaging beige. And bedding and furniture are encased in shells that approach the durability of fish scales.

That’s what it’s like at the Family Place Resource Center and Shelter, the next generation of emergency shelter that Families in Transition opened in January on Lake Avenue.

Except for one thing: the wall safes.

Inside of each of the bedrooms for 11 families is a push-button coded wall safe.

Kara Hagen, 26, uses the safe to stash her medication, the one thing Hagen owns that could harm her energetic, 1½-year-old son, who enjoys tossing around toy dinosaurs and an old cellphone.

“It makes me feel safe that he can’t get it,” Hagen said.

Safety is a big part of the design of the Family Place shelter, which is ironically in one of the toughest parts of town — Lake Avenue near Union Street.

Safety creates peace of mind for a parent, which allows that parent to start the difficult journey out of homelessness, according to Maureen Beauregard, the founder and president of Families in Transition.

“I think like a parent. The most important thing to parents is the safety of their kids,” said Beauregard, whose Manchester-based agency turned 25 this year. Families in Transition owns 200 apartments in Manchester, Concord and Dover. Since 1991 the agency has provided housing and social services to 3,402 families that were either homeless or nearly homeless.

New model

This newest FiT building opened in January, after the organization raised $2 million to add a second floor to the former Community Resource building.

It replaced the overcrowded Liberty Street emergency family shelter, which was in a North End apartment building and overseen by the city’s Welfare Department for most of its existence.

This latest endeavor demonstrates how entrenched Families in Transition has become in Manchester. Businesses such as Brady-Sullivan, AutoFair, and Anagnost Properties and Cityside Management quickly raised the money for the project, and groundbreaking ceremonies drew politicians from all sides.

FiT’s latest model tries to tackle the literal runaround that sends marginalized people trotting from one social service agency to another to get different kinds of help.

Now, under the same roof, Catholic Medical Center provides health care, New Horizons cooks up three meals a day, Southern New Hampshire Services holds a Head Start class, and Goodwill Industries teaches job skills to parents.

The biggest missing element, substance-abuse counseling, is about 1½ miles away at another FiT program site, and FiT provides transportation.

Coming back

“We’re just trying to get ourselves back on our feet and start all over again,” said Laura Page, 32. A heroin addict for four years, Page lost everything and ended up living in a tent with her boyfriend.

She spent her recent pregnancy in the tent, landing in the shelter shortly after the birth of her daughter. The baby, at 23 days old, drew most of the attention at the shelter during my visit this week.

“It keeps me strong, knowing I’ve got my kids,” said Page, who was also reunited with her 4-year-old son after she moved to the shelter. “That’s my recovery, to get my kids.”

Right now, her only income is food stamps. But she’s applied for welfare, and she interviewed Friday for a job at a fast food restaurant.

Most families in the shelter are headed by single parents, but there are a few intact families. Nearly all are waiting for a space to open in other Families in Transition apartments, meaning they’ll remain under the care of the organization for what could end up being years.

“When you get here, you could feel the warmth, the heat — not friends, they’re family. There’s nothing you ask for that they say no to,” said Victor DelValle, who lives at the shelter with his wife and three daughters.

DelValle moved to Manchester from Cleveland to be close to relatives. In Cleveland, his family lived in a large shelter along with cockroaches and prison parolees, he said. His daughters have health problems, and he said Manchester’s health care is far better than Cleveland’s.

Homeless legacy

George Bush — the first one — was President when Beauregard quit her job with the Division of Children, Youth and Families and opened a shelter for five families. As homelessness grew, so did FiT.

How do families end up homeless? Beauregard gives a long list: domestic violence, poor education, low wages, high housing costs, drug abuse, isolation. And homeless kids are likely to become homeless parents, she said.

“All the arrows are pointing the wrong way (for the children),” she said.

This is a woman who realizes she’s not going to slay the beast of homelessness. Maybe no one can. But she’s done a good job of tending the wounded.

“No parent wakes up and decides to be homeless, to drink or to use drugs,” Beauregard said. “Every parent wants to be not just a good parent, but a great parent. It’s our job to help them reach that goal.”
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Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at [email protected]

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