Surviving in Somerville

The American Dream: we’ve seen it in our grandparents’ smiles in the black-and-white photographs of their arrival onto Ellis Island; we’ve heard about it from Jay-Z, rapping about his childhood in the Marcy Projects in a pre-gentrified Brooklyn; we’ve made it happen, electing a Hawaiian-born, mixed-race kid raised by a single mom to the Oval Office.

The American Dream—the idea that with enough hard work, the white picket gates of the sought-after middle-class community will open wide—is sewn in our national fabric. Our individual and collective actions, morale, and culture are fueled by the persisting rags-to-riches narrative, by the notion that “anything is possible.”

But try telling that to Richie, a Vietnam vet whose post-traumatic disorder led him to the streets for over twenty years. Richie is just one of the 180 people, including families and individuals, in public housing supported by the Somerville Homeless Coalition, a nonprofit seeking to help those in need to obtain and maintain affordable housing. Others include young adults who entered the program with histories of drug addiction, and women who were victims of abuse.

“65 percent of women in the shelter are there because of domestic violence,” said Mark Allston-Follansbee, executive director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition. “People come into the program at age 18-24. Most of them were doing hard drugs, shooting heroin at age 12 as a way of self-medicating for the trauma they were going through. Are we going to blame these people for the violence inflicted upon them?”

With the homeless population in Massachusetts increasing faster than that of any other state in the nation, it’s becoming more difficult to trace the issue back to personal responsibility. An October report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stated that the homeless population in Massachusetts has risen 40 percent since 2007, even as the nationwide number has declined by 11 percent.

Though HUD provides the Somerville Homeless Coalition with money for public housing, the amount is not enough to accommodate the all the homeless families and individuals seeking support. Last year, the Coalition had to use $23,000 of its own money, and Allston-Follansbee anticipates the cost rising to $35,000 this year.

Across the country, half of an estimated 578,424 homeless Americans are concentrated in just five states: California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts—all of which boast major urban centers that have been characterized by gentrification patterns in the last few years.

According to Daniel Hartley, who authored the Cleveland Fed’s report on gentrification and financial health, nearly a quarter of Boston is undergoing gentrification. Between 2000 and 2007, he writes, home prices in one out of every four Boston neighborhoods rose from the bottom half of the metropolitan area distribution to the top half. Boston has always been a ‘student city,’ catering to predominately white, upper-middle class college students and post-grads. But signs that gentrification patterns have expanded into traditionally blue-collar surrounding neighborhoods like Somerville can be seen in the transformation of Davis Square from sketchy to stylish, with upscale thrift shops and yoga studios routinely popping up.

“With the arrival of the red line in Davis Square, the orange line in Assembly Station, and soon the Green Line in Union Square, we’re seeing a massive displacement,” Allston-Follansbee said. “Costs go up, incomes stay flat, and more and more people are being forced out of homes they have lived in their whole lives.”

This is especially true of the areas around Tufts’ campus; landlords raise prices, knowing that students looking to live off-campus are willing to pay a higher price than most residents can afford. Though this is not the underlying cause of homelessness in Somerville, as Allston-Follansbee noted, “It’s a contributing factor—Tufts students are indicative of gentrification.”

So where is the root of the issue? The notion of personal responsibility ingrained in the rhetoric of the American Dream is central to the maintenance of a power structure that values certain human lives over others. By denying inequities inherent in the current capitalist system and attributing poverty to culture, politicians and average Americans alike perpetuate economic inequality and its associated ills. Homelessness is an expression of poverty, and poverty is as ingrained in the US as the concept of the American Dream.

“As a society, we have not figured out our responsibility to these very vulnerable populations,” Allston-Follansbee said. “We have people coming in here with mental illnesses, and that’s not our job, that shouldn’t be our job, but we have no choice. The safety net is broken. And eventually, people are going to be storming the gates of the Bastille because they need bread.”

Header image by Danielle Scott/Flickr via Creative Commons.

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