Securing legislative funding to address homelessness can feel like a roller coaster. In Massachusetts, provider and peer activists have spent the last five years fighting for resources for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness, with ups and downs along the way.
“This seems like an important issue, but I don’t think there are any homeless young adults in my district,” the legislator said.
I was stunned – Massachusetts service agencies estimate that there are over 6,000 youth and young adults in the state who experience homelessness every year, and my organization had directly served over 500 homeless young adults in the previous year. During 2010, a coalition of providers and advocates came together under the leadership of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless to urge legislators to provide state-level funding to support young adults experiencing homelessness and housing instability.
“Clearly, we have some work to do,” said one of my colleagues after the meeting. We vowed to bring the issue to the forefront, and began strategizing about how to make our legislators understand the issues and feel moved to act. We knew that it would take more than providers advocating for the issue – we needed to bring the voices of the young adults experiencing homelessness directly to our legislators. Legislators might brush us off, but they wouldn’t do the same to young people willing to share their stories.
During that period, I was the Program Manager of Youth on Fire, a drop-in center and HIV prevention program for homeless young adults aged 18-24. We began training members to speak to legislators, educators, organizers and anyone else who would listen. We learned that it was easy to call a legislator’s office and request a meeting, even if we weren’t direct constituents. We visited the State House monthly, meeting with 3 or 4 legislators (or more likely, their aides) each time.
“The thing that keeps me on the streets is simply the lack of affordable housing. It’s hard to keep a regular job when you don’t have a place to put your head, and without a job it’s hard to pay rent. And even when I have a job, I don’t make enough money to get a place or keep it for very long. And don’t even get me started on getting fired from jobs when they find out I’m homeless…. I am currently staying in a tent outside. I often get woken up at 4am when the tent collapses under the weight of the snow. Kids like me shouldn’t have to stay in a tent in the middle of winter. Massachusetts can do better than this.” SC, age 22
“How did I get to this point in my life? It’s easy. At 16 years my mom came to me and asked me ‘are you gay?’ I said ‘no’ because I was not sure. She told me that if I was, she and my dad would still love me. Then at 19, I came out as bisexual to both of my parents, and my mom said ‘no son of mine is going to be a faggot.’ Being on the streets is a tough life. You never know where your next meal is going to come from, where you are going to lay your head, and even if you do get a chance to be inside, it’s usually from some dirty old man telling you ‘Hey, you can stay with me…’ but then he expects something sexual in return. You have a choice: either freeze on the streets and go hungry, or do what he asks. I have had to make that choice before, and sometimes the choice is not what I would want it to be.” SF, age 23
“One of the hardest things about being in this situation is feeling alone all the time. You feel that there’s no one out there for you. It’s like walking on a cliff – if you fall there’s no one to help you up. You just fall. I hope after hearing my story, you will be inspired to lend a helping hand. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It could be a simple smile or a handshake. You could help a program help youth like me. Or you could do something bigger and get this legislation passed. Whatever you do – just do something.” IM, age 20
“I have never actually gone to a shelter, because I don’t trust them to keep me, my belongings, or my medication safe. I have friends who were sexually assaulted at shelters. I feel like being on the streets is safer for me. It’s a messed up situation when the streets are the safest place for me to go. You can change that.” MB, age 23
Their message was clear: We are young. We are homeless. We need supports and services. The state can do better than this. And YOU, Legislator XYZ, can make it happen.
Young Adult Advocates in front of the MA State House, March 2013
Proposing and Passing a Bill
State Representative Jim O’Day took the lead. A former employee with the Department of Children and Families, he had a deep understanding of the issues facing children and families. In January 2011, he and other legislators put forward House Bill 135, “An Act promoting housing and support services to unaccompanied homeless youth.” On January 6, 2015, almost four years to the day that the bill was proposed, Governor Deval Patrick, on his second-to-last day as governor, signed it into law. However, as we learned, a bill becoming a law does not mean that any money has been allotted to it. To have money to implement supports and services, funding would need to be appropriated in the state budget. There was still work to be done.
Young Adult advocates with Representative Jim O’Day at the MA State House, March 2014
The Budget is Proposed
July 7, 2015.
I picked up the phone.
“I saw the news…” Synthia says. “I just…I mean…” Pause. “It mattered,” she finally says, quietly.
The news of the Massachusetts’ Legislature’s budget appropriations, including the $2 million in new funding for programs and housing for homeless young adults, had just become public.
“Isn’t it amazing?” I replied. “We’ve worked for a long time to make it happen.” I paused. “What do you mean, ‘it mattered’?”
Quietly, she repeated herself. “It mattered. It really mattered,” she says again. “All those times we got up in front of strangers and told our stories. All those times I felt raw and open and scared and scarred and judged and ashamed and proud…they were worth it. It mattered. It made a difference. They actually did something. They heard what we said. They heard what we’ve been through and decided they would do something about it. Things are going to change. Because they listened.”
“Because you talked,” I replied.
“Because we talked. And because they listened,” she said.
Our work had finally paid off. They listened. They couldn’t un-hear the stories these young people told. They could no longer say, “This does not affect my constituents.” They understood that young adults experiencing homelessness were their constituents.
Synthia later wrote a reaction in a blog post for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless:
“When I read that we had been allotted two million dollars, I cried.
We have worked so long, with so many sleepless nights and tear-filled days, to get people to do something to support us. We have prepared speeches and wondered about all the possible effects of our outreach, education, seminars, and presentations on both the presenters and audience. To be honest, in all of my travels, hitch hiking, and sleeping outside (I hate the word “homeless”), I have never felt more full of terror, wonder, anxiety and naked-full-frontal-in-your-face realness as when the thought "this might all be in vain” crossed my mind. “Things may never change and I have exposed myself to all these people" -- sometimes several hundred people – sometimes I didn’t think it was worth it.
I cried when I heard the news because I can only imagine what this will mean to the teens and young adults who are at risk – who will now be able to see a significant change in services available to them.
…We are not an enemy.
We are houseless not homeless.
Together, we can keep this going.”
The Funding is Vetoed
But then, a week later, the current governor vetoed the funding.
Citing that the funding “was not consistent” with his other recommendations, Governor Baker vetoed the line item. The money was no longer there. We were all in shock. How could he do this? How could he take this funding away?
Advocates and allies again moved to act. Two weeks later, the Legislature would take up the budget again with the power to override the Governor’s vetoes. Phone calls and meetings began in earnest.
A group of young adult advocates wrote a letter to legislators to encourage their override of the veto:
“Over the past years, we as individuals and as members of partner organizations have worked hard to secure this funding. We have shared our stories countless times, and when we received news that the funding was included in FY’ 16 budget, we felt that our voices had been heard.
However, Governor Baker’s veto tells us otherwise. It is so difficult to understand what could be more important than the well-being and safety of a young person. We asked for housing and services. We asked for freedom - the ability to forge our own paths with the promise of stability. We didn’t ask for anything extravagant.
Today we are asking you not to ignore this problem- not to ignore the thousands of youth and young adults who do not have a safe place to sleep at night. Please help us restore funding to the youth homelessness law by overriding Governor Baker’s veto.”
The Legislature Votes
The Work paid off: The Legislature unanimously votes in favor of an override to Governor Baker’s veto.
On Wednesday July 29th, 2015 the Legislature voted 154-0 in the House of Representatives and 38-0 in the Senate to restore the $2 million in youth homelessness funding. Every single one of the 192 legislators present voted to restore the funding.
We had done our job. Four and half years after the legislator told us that unaccompanied homeless youth were not an issue that mattered to him, we had made it matter to every single legislator in Massachusetts.
In a thank you letter to the legislators, the young adult advocates wrote:
“Thank you not only for re-appropriating $2 million dollars in the FY16 State Budget to support programs, services, and housing for homeless young adults; thank you for looking this problem in the face. Thank you for seeing us. Young adults experiencing homelessness are often invisible and ignored; we often feel invalidated and hopeless that things will ever change.
Hearing that the Legislature approved this funding tells us that our struggles and our stories matter and that our voices were heard. It renews our hope that elected officials can do things that positively change the lives of the people they represent. It gives us faith that future generations of young adults are going to have the supports they need to survive and thrive. It will mean that young adults without homes can focus on getting jobs or going to school, and dealing with mental health and substance use issues – things that you can’t do when you don’t know if you will be safe at night.
Thank you for showing us that it’s going to get better. For giving us hope for ourselves and for others. For telling us that we’re not alone.
Thank you for listening to us.
It means the world.”
The roller coaster has been difficult to ride. The ups and downs have been exhausting, nauseating, and exhilarating. We didn’t know where or when it would end, and often thought about getting off when it felt overwhelming and pointless. But we stayed on, sometimes closing our eyes and holding onto one another to get through the rough parts. And we did it. We made it matter.
This part of the ride is over, and I couldn’t be more proud.
- Read here for more on House Bill 135
- Check out Harvard Square's new youth shetler underway, Y2Y Harvard Sqaure
- Support Harvard Sqaure's drop-in center, Youth on Fire
- Check out Ayala's upcoming course, Developing Your Identity, Skills and Confidence as a Supervisor