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Photo: NBC Boston
Project Home Again helps low-income families get on their feet again with furniture from donors such as movie companies finished with their stage sets.

I love writing about experiments that someone has thought up to help people in need. Usually the initiatives blossom and flourish, like the one I will tell you about today. But now is as good a time as any to admit that occasionally an experiment fails (consider one I wrote about helping displaced miners learn coding). I guess, for me, the bottom line is that you have to risk failure in order to move forward. No successes without failures.

In Lawrence and Andover, Mass., success seems to follow each new effort that Project Home Again tries out.

As Judith Kogan reported at WGBH, “When a film is made, sets are built and decorated to make a story seem real. And now in Massachusetts, when filming is done, those sets are having real-life impact, empowering people trying to rebuild their lives to design their own homes, free of charge. …

” ‘Say we’re decorating a dining room,’ explained Melissa Cooperman, a set decorator and buyer for films and commercials shot in Massachusetts. ‘We’ll need a table, we’ll need chairs, carpet, dishes, glasses, artwork for the wall, lighting, curtains, and window treatments.’

“When a film wraps, the producer needs to decide what to do with the accumulated stuff, often an abundance of home goods.

“Cooperman worked on the 2014 television mini-series ‘Olive Kitteridge,’ which was shot on the North Shore and Cape Ann. It had a fully-furnished house and apartment, and fully-stocked drug store.

“ ‘They said they wanted to donate everything,’ Cooperman recalled. …

“Project Home Again gets goods to where they’re most needed and wanted, partnering with about 400 social workers, founder and president Nancy Kanell said.”

Social workers ” ‘go to their clients’ homes with a checklist of everything that we stock. And they sit down with their clients and they go room by room, and decide what they need to make them feel comfortable,’ Kanell said. …

“Project Home Again serves refugees, veterans, people transitioning from halfway houses, and survivors of domestic violence.

“ ‘When they come here,’ Kanell said of the abuse survivors, ‘we roll out the red carpet.’ … Kanell remembers one particular survivor: ‘She came on a day we were closed because she was very afraid of her own shadow at that point. And she just wanted beige. She said she didn’t like color, didn’t deserve color.’

“Kanell and Cooperman found her a green chair.

“ ‘A green that people would be either very drawn to or very opposed to having in their home,’ Kanell recalled. ‘But there was something about it she liked. She sat down on it.’ …

“Kanell and Cooperman started pulling colorful rugs and a colorful table to go with the chair. …

“ ‘She was uncomfortable with it, but you could see she was starting to like it. And I made a deal with her that she could take it home, and if she didn’t like the color, I’d come and pick it up, and she could get all beige things. We even had colorful pots and pans for her! And she called about two weeks later. She said she and her son were so happy they were living in a colorful world, and it changed their outlook.’

“Project Home Again hasn’t just been changing lives. It’s changed the industry as well. Many set decorators now have Nancy Kanell on speed dial so they can get rid of their stuff as quickly as possible.” More here.

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Photo: Low Income Housing Institute
Six tiny houses share a common deck in Lake Union Village, Seattle, Washington.

Believe it or not, there are lots of people who spend their time trying to make life better for everyone. I know how easy it is to get distracted by headlines featuring people doing the opposite, but I find that focusing on the helpers is better for my mental health. The following article shows how well things can work when a city tries to make life better for everyone by helping those most in need.

At the community development magazine Shelterforce, Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), reported on a hopeful Seattle initiative.

“In 2017, I wrote a piece for Shelterforce on Seattle’s then-emerging effort to build tiny houses to shelter homeless families, couples, and singles. Over the past three years, Seattle has led the country in piloting this response to the homelessness crisis. …

“Tiny house villages are an effective crisis response to homelessness and have proven to be a rapid, cost-effective response with better outcomes than traditional shelters. …

“When Mayor Jenny Durkan took office in January 2018, she authorized the first tiny house village exclusively for homeless women. The Whittier Heights Village is located on property owned by Seattle public utility City Light and shelters single women, same-sex couples, seniors, pregnant women, and women with pets. The mayor also funded two additional villages: True Hope Village, which is church-sponsored and focuses on people of color including families with children; and Lake Union Village (LUV), for singles and couples, located on a city-owned parking lot. All three villages were planned, constructed, and opened in 2018, and together shelter 155 homeless people.

“How did this happen so quickly? The mayor prioritized the need. … A village requires anywhere from 6,000 to 30,000 square feet of vacant land, depending on the number of tiny houses and common facilities to be placed there. There are suitable urban infill sites zoned for residential and mixed use, as well as larger commercial and industrial sites.

“It takes careful research and help from local government to identify good sites, and we were quite surprised to find a large inventory of publicly owned underutilized and surplus sites held by the city, county, state and even the Port of Seattle. We also found multiple nonprofit, private, and church-owned properties that could be used. Nonprofit housing organizations own land that they hope to develop in the future, and these can be used on an interim basis, from two to four years, for a tiny house village.

“Each village needed only four to six months’ lead time to be constructed. … There are 15 to 34 tiny houses at each village, plus shared community kitchens, community meeting space, counseling offices, storage, donation huts, security huts, and plumbed bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities.

“An effective partnership between multiple departments in the city and LIHI was key in setting up the villages. … LIHI staff led the effort to raise funds to construct the tiny houses, reaching out to hundreds of donors and volunteers. We applied for permits, led work parties to build the houses, and developed the management and staffing plans.

“We undertook extensive community outreach to neighbors, businesses, and the public, working alongside city staff, including the Seattle Police Department and the Human Services Department, which funds LIHI for operations and services. While not everyone was supportive, they were all provided detailed information on the management plan and code of conduct, and were invited to submit their names to serve on a community advisory committee. Each village, staffed 24/7, has Village Organizers and dedicated case managers to assist people in obtaining long-term housing, employment and services.”

At Shelterforce, here, you can read more details, including Lee’s assessment of how the tiny house approach compares with other initiatives to address homelessness.

Photo: Andrew Constantino
A row of tiny houses in the Georgetown Village in Seattle. I like how residents show their love for their place.

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Photo: Oluwatoyin Adewumi/BBC
Tanitoluwa Adewumi playing chess.

That today’s media has a downside needs no elaboration, but think about the good that sharing stories can do! In this case, a young asylum-seeker in a New York City shelter gained attention for chess playing and, when the word got out, ended up with a home for his family.

Here’s what I first learned from the BBC. “Tanitoluwa Adewumi left his home in northern Nigeria with his family in 2017 because of the ongoing attacks by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. He moved with his family to the United States, but is currently living in a homeless shelter with his mother Oluwatoyin, father Kayode and older brother.

“Despite the challenges, when Tanitoluwa showed an interest in playing chess, his mother made sure that he could attend the local club. He has been playing for just over a year, but hours of practice and hard work have paid off – he has just won top prize in his age category at the New York State Chess Championship.” More at the BBC.

And here’s what happened after New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof spread the word. This piece was published March 23. “Tanitoluwa Adewumi, age 8, skidded around the empty apartment, laughing excitedly, then leapt onto his dad’s back. ‘I have a home!’ he said in wonderment. ‘I have a home!’

“A week ago, the boy was homeless, studying chess moves while lying on the floor of a shelter in Manhattan. Now Tani, as he is known, has a home, a six-figure bank account, scholarship offers from three elite private schools and [more]. …

“I wrote in my column last weekend about Tani as a reminder of the principle that talent is universal, even if opportunity is not. A Nigerian refugee who had learned chess only a bit more than a year earlier, he had just defeated kids from elite private schools to win the New York state chess championship for his age group. …

“A GoFundMe drive raised more than $200,000 for Tani, his parents and his brother. A half-dozen readers offered housing — in a couple of cases, palatial quarters. Immigration lawyers offered pro bono assistance to the Adewumis, who are in the country legally and seeking asylum. …

“The family settled on one of the more modest and practical housing offers: An anonymous donor paid a year’s rent on a two-bedroom apartment near Tani’s current school. The apartment is clean, comfortable and freshly painted, without being luxurious, and the Adewumis gaze adoringly at their new kitchen.

“ ‘I want my mom’s cooking again!’ Tani mused as he explored the apartment. It was bare, but another donor had offered furniture, sheets and towels. Someone else was sending 100 chess books. …

“The Adewumis have decided that they will not spend a cent of the $200,000 GoFundMe money on themselves. They will take out a 10 percent tithe and donate it to their church, which helped them while they were homeless, and the rest will be channeled through a new Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation to help African immigrants who are struggling in the United States the way they were a week ago. …

“ ‘I’m a hardworking guy,’ Mr. Adewumi explained. He has two jobs: He drives for Uber with a rented car and sells real estate through Brick & Mortar. Someone has now offered him a free car so that he can keep more of the money he makes driving, and Tani’s mom was just offered a job as a health care aide at a hospital. …

“The family was tempted by the offers of full scholarships at top private schools. But Tani and his parents decided that while he might accept such a scholarship for middle school, he would be loyal and stick with the public elementary school, P.S. 116, that taught him chess and waived his fees for the chess club. …

“ ‘God has already blessed me,’ Mr. Adewumi told me. ‘I want to release my blessing to others.’ ”

More  at the Times.

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File photo of a man clinging to the top of a vehicle in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans

Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters/Corbis
Clinging to the top of a vehicle before being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard from the flooded streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 2005. The city’s homelessness problem grew exponentially after Katrina. Then a unique collaborative decided to do something about it.

Homelessness is increasing all over this wealthy, unequal land of ours. And you know what? It’s possible to do something about it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Consider this effort in New Orleans, as reported by Jeremy Hobson on WBUR’s Here and Now.

“Across the U.S., more than a half million people have been identified as homeless. New Orleans faced a major crisis in homelessness following Hurricane Katrina.

In 2007, two years after the storm, there were more than 11,600 homeless people in the city. Since then, New Orleans stepped up its effort to tackle homelessness and has brought that number down 90 percent.

“Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson the strategy to tackle the ‘unprecedented explosion’ of homelessness in the city following Katrina was threefold.

“First, Kegel says, Unity of Greater New Orleans — a nonprofit leading a collaborative of organizations providing housing and services to the homeless — had to assemble an outreach team that ‘was willing to go anywhere and do anything to rescue and rehouse a homeless person.’

“Second, Kegel says the group put all its effort behind gathering a rent assistance fund. ‘We went directly to Congress,’ she says. …

“And lastly, she says, the team took a ‘Housing First’ approach, which is ‘simply the idea that you accept people as they are,’ whether they are sober or not. … ‘Once they’re in their apartment, you immediately wrap all the services around them that they need to stay stable and live the highest quality life that they can live.

” ‘Actually, this is a very cost-effective approach, because when you think about it, it is costing the taxpayer a tremendous amount of money to leave people on the street. They’re constantly cycling in and out of jail on charges that wouldn’t even be relevant if they had an apartment, things like urinating in public, drinking in public, obstructing the sidewalk because they’re having to sleep on the sidewalk. Homeless offenses, in other words, that are costing the taxpayers a lot of money to be putting them in jail and processing them through the criminal justice system. Their health is deteriorating while they’re out on the street. They’re being taken by ambulance to the emergency room constantly. Those are huge charges.

” ‘Really what you need is, you know, a relatively small amount of money to pay for some rent assistance and they can contribute some of that rent as well with disability benefits or if they’re able to work with, you know, employment income and a little bit of case-management assistance. It really has been proven over and over again in studies to be very cost effective.

” ‘This is permanent housing. How long the rent assistance lasts depends on what people need. And we’re kind of masters at trying to spread what is always an inadequate amount of money as far as it’ll spread. …

” ‘We have reached what we call “functional zero,” which means that we compiled a list using our outreach team [and] using our shelter lists that are updated every night. We housed, in their own apartments, every veteran on that list except nine that had refused housing, mostly because of mental illness. And we continued to work with those nine, at that point, [we] have housed four more of them. Then going forward, we have made a commitment that any time a veteran becomes newly homeless, we house them in an apartment within an average of 30 days or less. And we’ve maintained that now for over four years and we’re extremely proud of that. It is very hard work. It requires a lot of organizations working together — and the VA and the Housing Authority — everybody working together to make that happen.’ ”

Think about those homeless veterans this Memorial Day. If we do “war” to them, can we also do housing with services? It’s about compassion and taking responsibility.

And I like how Kegel says, “You have to love the people in your community and want your community to thrive and care very deeply about the vulnerable people in it, that you’re willing to do, what we say, whatever it takes.”

More here.

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Photo: WGRZ
The owner of Sakina Halal Grill, Kazi Mannan, knows what it’s like to be hungry. Thanks to his paying customers in DC, he can give meals to the homeless for free.

Don’t you love successful people who remember how painful poverty and daily anxiety about food can be — and who decide to help others? Tim Ebner reports at the Eater in Washington, DC, about a restaurateur who did just that.

“Come 2 p.m. in many Washington, D.C., restaurants, the lunch rush is all but over. … But for Kazi Mannan, owner of Sakina Halal Grill, the lunch rush is just getting started.

“On a late-Friday afternoon, the door to his Pakistani-Nepalese-Indian restaurant keeps swinging open. A homeless man who is deaf walks through the door. He carries a note. Mannan reads it, then attempts to sign with the man.

“Mannan asks if he wants something to eat while gesturing toward his mouth. The man holds up two fingers and pulls out $2, but Mannan shakes his head no.

“ ‘No money,’ ” he says. ‘You eat for free.’

“That’s Mannan’s policy for every homeless person who walks through the door. At Sakina Halal Grill, the poor, homeless, and hungry eat for free — Mannan calculates he gave away 6,000 meals in 2016 — and the waiters serve them in the dining room, as if they’re full paying customers.

“The buffet-style, halal restaurant, which is undergoing a name change from Mayur Kabab House to Sakina Halal Grill — ‘It’s a tribute to all the mothers around the world,’ Mannan, who lost his mother Sakina, 26 years ago, says of the switch. …

” ‘I’m the little guy on this block,’ Mannan said. ‘And, I love it. …

‘I want to say, “Hey listen, corporate people and people in politics! Listen to me!” I want to show them what love can do, and I want to spread a wave of love that touches the lives of millions.’

“Mannan says he’s living the immigrant dream, in a place where people are likely to take notice. Keeping his door open — which he did Thursday during the #ADayWithoutImmigrants strike — is more than just good business, it’s an expression of his faith. …

” ‘Kazi Mannan: The restaurant has been here for decades. I took it over in 2013 and this really was my dream. I came from a village in Pakistan that didn’t have electricity or plumbing. Our school was completely outdoors. It was always my dream to overcome poverty and own a restaurant. …

” ‘I started working at a gas station off Benning Road in Northeast. At the time, it was a very dangerous neighborhood. I worked there for a few years, and eventually, I saved enough money to start a limousine service; someone told me that I could make my own money as a driver. The funny thing is — that’s where you meet all of the stars of D.C. I still own the company, and I’m very proud that I can provide jobs to people like me, immigrants. Because seriously for me, this is not about the money. …

” ‘My mother taught me to be generous and give with my time. Because remember, we were broke. But, if we had a guest visit, she would make tea and welcome them into our home. She gave everything of herself. …

” ‘I’m a Muslim-American. And I like to believe that when I’m giving to the poor and hungry, God sees that. Just the act of giving a smile to someone can be a blessing. Just think about what food has the power to do. …

‘ ‘The chefs work together … and not only do they make delicious food, but they represent places, which are typically at odds with each other. They come together in this kitchen and use pure love and food. …

” ‘I am proud to be Muslim-American. I am proud to be a citizen of this country. And as a Muslim, I want to show others the true essence of Islam — and that is to love.”

More at the Eater, here. Manna’s initiative seems to be going strong (click here for a 2019 update), which is reassuring as the Eater article is from 2017. I was sorry to see that when Panera tried something similar, a pay-what-you-want model, it didn’t last. (See Bloomberg.) As philanthropic people keep trying to find ways to feed the hungry while running a business, a model that works long-term will emerge. Meanwhile, one kind individual can make a huge difference in many lives.

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Photo: Ann Hermes/Christian Science Monitor
Men in need of a suit for a funeral, say, or a job interview can get one fitted to perfection at the nonprofit Sharp Dressed Man in Baltimore and Los Angeles.

When my daughter-in-law’s parents were doing spring cleaning one year, they donated boxes of clothes in excellent condition to one of the Providence agencies where I’m an ESL volunteer. Dorcas International has many services besides English classes, and one of them is a secondhand shop that provides household goods and clothes for refugees (if you are used to Africa, you definitely need a warm coat for Rhode Island winters) and for needy residents referred by other agencies.

I was glad to learn that there are similar services in other cities.

David Karas writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “On a frigid December afternoon, Tyler Freburger is standing in front of a set of mirrors wearing a suit picked out for him by a tailor. He sorely needs the attire for a funeral later in the week.

“A homeless veteran living in Baltimore, Mr. Freburger would usually have difficulty securing such an outfit, especially one selected for him personally. But in this instance, he was referred to the nonprofit Sharp Dressed Man.

“Since 2011, the organization has been helping men improve their lives by equipping them for job interviews and other occasions with well-fitting suits and accessories. …

“ ‘It’s a blessing that they are here,’ says Freburger, who notes that the organization has treated him well and has been working to supply what he needs – something he is not accustomed to in his daily life. …

The nonprofit was founded by clothing designer Christopher Schafer, who sought to give those in need an experience more like a visit to his custom clothing shop than stopping at a warehouse. …

“[Some years ago,] When Schafer was delivering some custom suits to a client, he was handed two bags of gently worn suits in return.

“ ‘He said I spoiled him with how I made his custom suits fit, and he couldn’t wear his old suits anymore,’ Schafer says. ‘They were still very nice, and he didn’t know where to take them.’

“Schafer found a nonprofit that would accept the suits and put them to good use, but as time went on, more of his clients did the same thing. At the suggestion of a friend, he decided to launch his own nonprofit, Sharp Dressed Man. …

” ‘Since those two bags of clothes, I believe we have dressed about 7,000 people,’ Schafer says. .. ‘If you treat a guy with dignity, he has a better chance of treating himself with dignity. … It is really powerful when you see guys when they are suited up and they are kind of glowing,’ he says. …

” ‘I had a battle with drugs and alcohol for 20 years, and if I wouldn’t have changed my life, I either would have been dead or I would have been in line asking for free soup,’ he says. … ‘That’s why I do it.’ ”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: Katherine Taylor for the Boston Globe
Eureka Ensemble, whose mission is to nurture social change, launched a Women’s Chorus that welcomes women experiencing severe poverty and homelessness.

How does one write a headline for a story like this? It’s not exactly about music giving homeless people hope. It’s more that focusing on music — music performed for you and music you make — activates a positive side of who you are. It’s that positive things can lead to other positive things.

During the 2018 Christmas season, there was quite a bit of comfort and joy being spread by music in the Greater Boston homeless community. Zoë Madonna wrote about it at the Boston Globe.

“The CASPAR homeless shelter, a low-slung brick building, crouches on Albany Street in Cambridge. When percussionist Jennie Dorris wheels her marimba through the front door, half of a large central room has been cleared, and a line of grizzled men sits at a long row of tables, watching. An enthusiastic older man in a Boston Strong T-shirt marches up, introducing himself as Danny. ‘Finally, the marimba’s here!’ he exclaims, grinning. ‘I wait all year for this.’…

” ‘What compels me is to take music where it’s needed and treat everyone with respect,’ says founder Julie Leven, a violinist. This year, its eighth, Shelter Music Boston has mounted scores of concerts in shelters throughout the Greater Boston area, including a full schedule in the days leading up to Christmas.

“It’s not the only music group focusing on the homeless around Boston. Eureka Ensemble, whose mission is to nurture social change, launched a Women’s Chorus that welcomes women experiencing severe poverty and homelessness. …

“Eureka’s most ambitious project, according to cofounder and conductor Kristo Kondakci, was a commissioned composition, Stephanie Ann Boyd’s ‘Sheltering Voices.’ Auditions for choral fellowships for women were held at Pine Street Inn and Women’s Lunch Place, says Kondakci, a recent graduate of New England Conservatory who has worked with the homeless since his student days at Boston College High School. Around 15 took part.

“Carrie Jaynes and Rottisha Mewborn are friends who met at Pine Street Inn. When they saw the audition sign-up sheet, they were initially skeptical, they say — they’re used to well-meaning outsiders putting in a few hours and then disappearing. But they went to the audition in March, in a room where the heater was going haywire. To cool it down, Kondakci threw open the door of a nearby freezer.

“And that, Mewborn says, put them at ease. … As Eureka Fellows, Jaynes and Mewborn rehearsed weekly with Kondakci, learning ‘Sheltering Voices.’ They were never treated as anything less than important and independent, they say.

“ ‘We became so desensitized at Pine Street that we forgot how we can be treated like a normal person,’ says Jaynes. At the rehearsals, she says, ‘we knew that we were in this together. We knew that we were all right . . . we could be human again. We could show emotion and not be judged if we cried, or laughed, or showed a softer side of us.’ …

“Shelter staff say that after Shelter Music Boston concerts, the atmosphere is more peaceful, and nights are more restful, notes Leven, who also plays with Handel and Haydn Society and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. …

“As for the Eureka fellowships, Jaynes and Mewborn say their experiences were powerful. ‘Having Kristo say “We’ll get you there no matter what” built up our trust and our safety,’ Mewborn says. Because Pine Street Inn has a daily lottery, she explains, she never knows if she’ll have a bed to sleep in each night. There’s little in her life she can truly count on. ‘So just having this little safety — even if things are going crazy out here, we can get there — it’s amazing.’ ”

More here.

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