November 14, 2014
Planting Roots to End Homelessness


November 7, 2014

Karen gave this talk at Harborlight Community Partners in Beverly, MA. Harborlight Community Partners, Inc. is a growing non-profit organization with the capacity and sustainability to provide affordable housing across Southern Essex County.

I now claim my roots in the tiny town of Essex, but when I was growing up in the Midwest my family moved every 6-12 months to follow my father’s work.  Almost every year until I was 12, I entered a new town, moved into a new house (and once for six months into a motel.)  Each year I adapted to a new school or two or three.  Needless to say, migrating back and forth between Indiana, Ohio and Illinois, I didn’t develop a strong sense of roots.  So, coming to college near Boston was momentous for me, because it was my first chance to plant my own roots.

My children also know something about being uprooted.  All are adopted or blended into our family, having lost their earliest connections to parents and place.  So, I have been determined to give them solid new roots.  With roots come identity. A place to be known.  A sense of belonging.  A chance to contribute to an ecosystem and a community.  A sense of hope that all will be well.  The faith that you can always go home to your roots.  But to be well-rooted…one first needs a home.

 Twenty-one years ago my husband and I chose to set down our family’s roots in the small, welcoming and picturesque town of Essex, amidst communities rich in history, landscape, and culture.  We have always felt extremely fortunate ever since.

 Just like this, the mission of Harborlight Community Partners is about planting seeds of hope that send out strong roots.  We create homes for families, so children can plant roots and grow.  We create accessible and supportive congregate housing so our seniors and people living with disabilities can stay near their families and hold onto their roots.   We enable persons on low-incomes — whose work we couldn’t live without — live where they work and deepen their roots among us.  We enable new Americans and older Americans, seeking safety and freedom, to plant fresh roots in critically important cities like Peabody and Gloucester, just as settlers have done here for nearly four centuries.  Harborlight Community Partners is about planting roots, not merely building roofs.

The paradox framing our work is that the history, landscape, and culture that enhance our quality of life on the North Shore carry a huge price – one far too high for many seniors, for those living with disabilities, and for low-wage-earning workers and their families. The average Fair Market Rent for a small 2-bedrooom apartment in Massachusetts is just over $15,000 a year.[i]  For nearly 1 out of 6 Massachusetts workers, those who earn less than $11 per hour (or up to $23,000 a year), that leaves only $151 a week beyond rent for everything else.[ii]  I know I couldn’t live on that, let alone support a family.

It just doesn’t add up.  Rents here are wickedly unaffordable for those on fixed or low incomes. That’s why the “homeless population in Massachusetts is rising faster than in any other state” in our nation, according to the Boston Globe last week.  Homelessness in Massachusetts has risen 40 percent since the Great Recession began in 2007!   On one night in January this year, we had more than 21,000 people in shelters, transitional housing or on the streets.  This was 12% more than the previous year! The only place experiencing a greater increase in homelessness since 2007 has tragically been our nation’s capital.  And, if you look at last year alone, only Nevada surpassed us in the rate of increase of homelessness.[iii]

The good news nationwide is that during these same years, overall homelessness across the US actually decreased by 11%.  It has gone down by 33% among veterans because the federal government has rightly invested in housing subsidies for those who have served our country.  Public policy makes a huge difference.  These are problems with permanent solutions.[iv]

 In some ways public policy related to homelessness is more enlightened in Massachusetts than elsewhere.  We should be proud to be the only state in the nation with a “right to shelter law.”  In Massachusetts every person has a right “to a roof over their heads the day they qualify for emergency housing.”[v]  To comply, taxpayers spent $158 million in FY14 for emergency family shelters, for temporary solutions.[vi]

Shelter is better than no shelter, for sure.  For that reason Harborlight Community Partners has invested hundreds of hours in supporting shelter and homeless housing in our state.  We have been partnering with our compassionate friends at River House in Beverly, Action, Inc in Gloucester and hopefully, soon with Lifebridge in Salem.

But shelters primarily provide safety and roofs.  They contain but can’t get at the root of the problem without more money for services and more affordable housing stock.  The root of the problem is that people in Massachusetts “are staying in shelters longer… as housing costs…continue to climb” out of reach.  As more dollars must be spent on more shelter beds for more nights, fewer dollars can be spent on the services needed to find permanent homes with real bedrooms.

I live in one of the quaintest, smallest towns in America – a place where I have never noticed a homeless person.  But in the city where I go shopping, hundreds of homeless people benefitting from “the right to shelter” are crammed into motel bedrooms with no kitchens, no family rooms, no bus routes to work, no playgrounds, and no sense of community.[vii]  Families exist in cubes.  Children live in limbo.  Everyone is rootless.  Only 10 minutes from here.  This is an appalling social and economic crisis conveniently hidden from view!

(However, just tonight I learned that two organizations are doing critical work among these families in motels on Route 1 in Danvers.  Wellspring House[viii] from Gloucester is offering afterschool tutoring and ESOL classes for 97 families lodged at one motel.  The Open Door[ix] out of Gloucester is providing a mobile market for access to fresh vegetables because there is no access to supermarkets.  Both organizations are working to create a sense of community among these homeless families.)

Another looming crisis is the projected increase in low-income seniors who will need affordable and accessible housing that does not now exist.  Today only 36% of low-income senior renters in America, who are eligible for housing assistance, actually receive it.[x]  The typical renter over 65 can only afford 2 months of in-home health care assistance.[xi]  A health set-back can put them out on the streets.  What will happen when the number of adults in America aged 65-74 nearly doubles by 2030?[xii]   Imagine the increase in homelessness among our parents and grandparents.

Some problems are in want of solutions.  Not these.  We know that congregate homes with supportive services are the ultimate solution to many forms of homelessness.

Tonight you have heard about our 19 buildings providing real homes in 8 communities.  Our region needs so many more.  But to develop them we need your support.  Not just financial — although by all means make another contribution tonight — but political.  We need you to vote in your towns for more Community Preservation Act and trust funds that can be spent on affordable housing.  We need you to vote for permits and zoning for multi-family districts and serve on your local housing trusts or committee.  We need you to urge your state representatives to back a Housing Bond bill next spring to finance more housing.  We need you to tell us about great sites to develop! You can even “like” us on Facebook!

This spring the state of Massachusetts will review 85 applications to develop affordable housing.  Only 25 applications will be funded.

Right now at our new Pigeon Cove residence in Rockport we have filled 30 units.  We have a waiting list of 123 senior citizens.

This week we requested permits and neighbors’ approval to develop 60 units of beautifully designed, affordable, supportive senior housing in Wenham.  There is strong town support, but that process will be long, as some residents are mounting expensive legal challenges. We need you to talk this up and help build support for this desperately needed resource for our region.

We at Harborlight Community Partners are about much more than roofs.  With your support, we are building and strengthening vibrant, inclusive communities where people cherish their roots.  We are so honored you have chosen to be with us tonight, to plant seeds of hope and to celebrate the roots we hold dear.


–  For more information: Karen Keating Ansara,  Credit for sources and data to Bethany Blake, Fundraising Coordinator, Harborlight Community Partners, Beverly, MA

[i] The Fair Market Rent (FMR) in Massachusetts for a two-bedroom unit is $1,251 per month (or $15,012 per year) according to  accessed11/7/14.  Homes for families adds:  “In order to afford this level of rent and utilities, without paying more than 30% of income on housing, a household must earn $4,169 monthly or $50,029 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into a Housing Wage of $24.05.”

[ii] Ibid. “In Massachusetts, nearly half a million workers earn less than $11.00 per hour. This group represents more than one in six workers in Massachusetts, those who occupy the lowest end of the wage scale (Jan 2013).”  A worker earning $11 per hour x 40 hours x 52 weeks would earn $22,880 in annual income. Note that $22,280 minus the $15,012 (FMR X 12 months) for a two-bedroom unit in Massachusetts leaves $7,868.  The latter figure divided by 52 = $151.31 per week for expenses other than rent.

[iii] Katie Johnston, “Homeless population in Mass. rising faster than in any other state,” Boston Globe, October 30, 2014, accessed 11/7/14.  Note that homeless figures for each location were based on surveys done by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on the same night in January, 2014, with 21,237 people reported as living in shelters, transitional housing or on the streets in Massachusetts, according to the Boston Globe article.  The article also noted that this figure represented “an increase of more than 2,200, or 12% percent from last year (2013).

[iv] Ibid. per the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] “In FY01, the Emergency Assistance program (EA) was funded at $65.4 million. In FY14, it was funded at $158.2 million, a 141.7% increase,” according to accessed 11/7/14.

[vii]    “As of November 4, 2014, there were approximately 4,800 families with children and pregnant women in Massachusetts’ Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program. 1,845 of these families with children were being sheltered in motels. This number does not count those families who are doubled up, living in unsafe conditions, or sleeping in their cars.´

Accessed 11/7/14.



[x] “1.4 million: due to a supply gap the number of low-income older renters who received housing assistance in 2011” was only 35.8% of the 3.9 million who were eligible to receive it.  From an infographic published by AARP on September 5, 2014 from a study conducted by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid. By 2030 the “number of aged 65-74 will nearly double from 21.7 million in 2010 to 21.6 million in 2030.”