When Mark Alston-Follansbee first moved to Boston nearly 30 years ago, he knew little about homelessness. After realizing that many of the people who asked him for money were veterans like himself, Alston-Follansbee began volunteering and eventually working for local governments and organizations to end homelessness.
“I was really upset that these guys were homeless cause they were traumatized,” Alston-Follansbee said. So when the opportunity to become the executive director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition opened up, he jumped at the chance to continue what had become his life’s work.
Before the MBTA extended the Red Line to Davis Square in 1984, many people in the area weren’t thinking about homelessness, Alston-Follansbee said. Homeless people in Somerville had to go to Cambridge or Boston to find a shelter. But that all changed in 1985 when the Somerville Homeless Coalition got its start with six beds in a church on College Avenue.
The organization has grown immensely during the last three decades and now serves nearly 2,500 people a year through its housing program and work with Project SOUP, Somerville’s largest food pantry. The two organizations joined forces in 1986 to fight the deeply intertwined issues of homelessness and hunger.
“Come to pantry because we don’t want you to become homeless,” Alston-Follansbee said. “There’s so little affordable housing. It creates a deep pit that individuals and families fall into.”
In the years since the Somerville Homeless Coalition got its start, its focus has shifted from sheltering individuals and families to preventing homelessness in the first place.
“The saddest thing is that the problem of homeless now is worse than when we started,” Alston-Follansbee said. “The work has transformed over the years from sheltering people to finding alternatives.”
The Coalition now has about 190 people in permitted housing that the organization supports. This includes more than 20 in the young adult program, which has been so successful that the state asked for its capacity to be doubled.
“The younger we can work with people, the better chance they have of becoming independent,” Alston-Follansbee said. “A lot of the people we work with have severe barriers of getting back into permanent housing. Our work is always with the goal of getting people back into housing.”
But rising rents in Somerville have put a strain on the Coalition. The group’s $3 million budget comes from grants and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which sets a fair market rate that Alston-Follansbee said “is not nearly enough.” This year, the Somerville Homeless Coalition needs to raise $30,000 to cover the cost of housing above what the organization gets from HUD.
“The biggest problem we have is that rents are rising so much in Somerville that we can’t afford them,” Alston-Follansbee said. “We are housing people from Somerville who want to say in Somerville.”
Through its prevention program, the Somerville Homeless Coalition has prevented 1,000 people from becoming homeless, according to Alston-Follansbee. This is a huge cost-savings that can have ripple effects. It costs the state $36,000 a year to house a family at a homeless shelter. And it costs only a little more than $1,000 to keep them from becoming homeless in the first place.
“The number of people living in deep poverty has risen drastically since the recession in 2008,” Alston-Follansbee said. “Any little crisis can potentially push them over the edge. We’ll do whatever it takes to prevent them from becoming homeless or to get them into housing as fast as possible.”
With that in mind, the Coalition is always looking for people in the community who want to give back–whether by volunteering, attending an event or donating funds. This Sunday, May 18, is the Save Our Homes Walk, a 5K that raises funds to help people with security deposits, back rent, utility bills and moving costs. Registration is at 1:30 p.m. and the walk starts at 2 p.m. The 3.1-mile walking route starts and ends at Somerville High School (81 Highland Ave.).
The Coalition is also putting on a big 5K road race in Somerville on October 4, where runners are urged to raise money to support the organization. Last year, 888 runners participated and more than $55,000 was raised.
Volunteers can get involved by helping prepare meals, tutoring and playing with kids or stuffing envelopes for big mailings. And as with most nonprofits, money is always needed at the Somerville Homeless Coalition. Alston-Follansbee acknowledged that there’s a big pull on people’s charitable dollars, but that supporting the Somerville Homeless Coalition can have a direct impact right here in our community.
“Things like homelessness and hunger, we know how to solve them, if we can educate people about what the real need is,” Alston-Follansbee said. “It’s really important for us as a community to take care of people who are suffering. Let’s all work together to make sure we’ve addressed this need in our community.”
P.S. This is part of Upward Facing Somerville, an ongoing series highlighting local nonprofits and ways to get involved in their efforts.
Image courtesy of the Somerville Homeless Coalition.