Julia is standing at one of the I-91 intersections in Holyoke after hitchhiking down from Vermont. On the back of her cardboard sign is a small, hand-written phone number.
Some guy in a truck gave it to her, she says. He says he has a moving company and to give him a call if she needs work. It’s an 860 number. We call it, but it goes straight to a man’s voicemail, and we search for the number online to see if it’s tied to a moving company, but find nothing.
“Well,” she says, “a lot of people use their cell phones as business lines. It’s probably fine, I guess.”
This sounds hopeful. But she looks defeated.
There was another man who offered her work. It’s why she was in Vermont for two weeks. Things didn’t go well.
“This guy offered me farm work,” she says while holding her sign and keeping her eyes on the drivers passing in their cars. “I used to do that. And he said he’d pay me and I’d have a place to stay. It sounded perfect and it was going good. But then it was time to pay me —”
She takes a deep breath and says the farmer told her she had been doing good work, but she could be doing “more” — sexually.
“I wasn’t going to be his whore, that wasn’t it — that’s not why I was there,” she says. “I told him I’ll call the police, and he laughed and said they wouldn’t believe me. And I thought about it, and he’s right … It could have been worse. I mean, at least he let me go.”
Julia is a stay-at-home mother in her mid-thirties from Franklin County who says she became homeless about a year ago after a bitter divorce. She says she was left with no money, no home, and no work experience to aid her in finding a job.
Listening to her story, I was gobsmacked to learn how easy it is to lose all the support structures you think will be there to help you, and how impossible it can seem to escape homelessness.
Finding a job is frustrating, she says. She secured work doing food prep at a college, but she was unable to weather an unexpected delay in pay and lost the job. She was working at a fast food restaurant in Chicopee for a while, she says, but got fired when customers started recognizing her as “the girl with the sign.” She lost another job because she couldn’t maintain a professional level of hygiene.
Julia went to a jobs center in Springfield to get trained to remove asbestos. It’s not her dream job, but she liked that it requires training, certification, safety standards, and that the work pays $20 an hour. For her, all these requirements mean security and accountability — things she lacks now. But about a month into her required training for certification, Julia, who took the bus, missed the class start time by a few minutes.
“The door was locked and that was it — I couldn’t, it was over, just like that,” she says. The program director told her she could take the class again, but it didn’t start for another month.
“I don’t know where I’ll be in a month,” she says.
Homeless people are often caught in a kind of Catch-22: A job is necessary to make money to get out of being homeless, but no one wants to hire a homeless person. And finding a consistent address is a challenge. Between Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire counties there are a total of 45 shelter beds specifically for homeless single women; there are an additional 54 beds that can accommodate single men or women; and 229 beds just for men. Some of the shelters — there are eight — provide work transition services to guests, but not all.
The solutions to Julia’s problems seem simple: she needs a place to stay, a job, and a reliable way to get there. But, at least for now, they all remain out of her reach and she’s spending her nights in a busted car she’s “not really supposed to be in.”
Homeless people need community support, and so do homelessness services. In the U.S., one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, there shouldn’t be people on the streets desperate for work and home.
Despite a focus on homeless families over the past five years, Massachusetts’ funding for the support of homeless individuals has not kept pace with need. Last fiscal year, the state paid $44.8 million for shelter services to homeless individuals, not including families. But that money only covered 47 percent of operating costs for the state’s 3,500 single shelter beds, according to the Coalition for Homeless Individuals, a Massachusetts advocacy group.
Julia says she feels like a leper at times. She’ll go days without anyone talking to her. Living this way, she says, is driving her crazy.
“I started talking to myself to keep my sanity because no one else would, but that makes me sound crazy, I know,” she says.
The last time I saw Julia she was looking for a way to charge her “Obama phone” so she could call the man who said he could give her a job. She was scared.
“I don’t want to be one of those girls who you never hear from again,” she says. “One of the ones that disappears.” Contact Kristin Palpini at firstname.lastname@example.org.