The homelessness situation, typically referred to as a “crisis,” is much in the news.  Cities and states struggle with what to do and who is to pay.  Cable television waxes hysterical.  Regular folks (like me?) are ambivalent about the issue.  I support a humane, just solution for people in dire straits, but I also sympathize with storeowners who cannot conduct business near an encampment or pedestrians and motorists who feel threatened on the streets.  Homeless individuals cannot be painted with a broad brush of moral shortcomings and criminality.  However, to the extent addiction and/or desperation is endemic in the population, it is naïve to think crime and chaos are not more prevalent around them.


     Having lived my adult life as a homeowner in prosperous suburbia, I have not experienced the homeless issue personally.  However, my wife, Katie, and I purchased a second home last year in east-central Massachusetts to facilitate visits to our son’s home near Boston and our daughter’s second home in upstate New York.  This second home of ours is now in the vortex of the homelessness storm.

     Let me explain:  our Massachusetts condo is located in an over 55 community nestled amidst beautiful rolling hills adjacent to a sparkling lake.  The development presently has 250 newly-constructed homes in five 50-unit buildings and will ultimately have 700 units in fourteen buildings.

     Why was a wonderful 400-acre parcel available for condo development in densely populated Massachusetts?  The site was formerly the State mental hospital and also home to wayward boys and orphans.  It’s numerous large, brick buildings housed thousands of patients and juveniles, respectively, over decades ranging from about 1870 to the mid-1970’s.  Many of the State buildings were razed before our construction commenced, but six still stand and are actively used by the MA social services department.  These red brick behemoths ring the borders of our property.  I’m told it took a decade of negotiations between the State, the local town and our developer, to finally approve our development — an over 55 community satisfied the local desire to obtain significant tax revenue without adding an influx of school-age children.


     When Katie and I first saw the site, we inquired about the use of the institutional buildings surrounding it.  

     “Those are social workers’ offices,” said the salesperson.  “They sometimes see outpatients but mostly just pass paper.”

     “But some of the buildings are forbidding,” we noted.  “They have fences and barbed wire around them.”

     “Yes,” said the agent.  “But there are only 10-12 juvenile in-patients left in just one of the buildings.  The buildings are largely empty.  There’s not anything to be concerned about.”

      Well, eighteen months later, the homeless “crisis” has deepened and Massachusetts is grasping for solutions.  Apparently, someone thought of the massive, State-owned, underutilized buildings around our complex.  Now, one building is being converted from office space to housing.  As it happens, that building is closest to our community, in general, and looms over our swimming pool, in particular.  It’s fenced-in (with barbed wire) and floodlit yard is just one hundred yards from two of our completed buildings though not particularly close to our unit.


     How do we feel about this situation, insulated as we are by our building’s relative distance from the likely “shelter,” and the fact we are only present about ten weeks a year?  The year-around residents are abuzz with rumors and debates, not unlike what happens when a hornet’s nest is kicked.

     The first reactions I saw were on-line and uniformly negative.  Residents railed against the developer for not guarding against this possibility or, at least, warning about it.  Now that it is apparently happening, some demand, among other things, significant fencing, lighting and security cameras.  A few want armed guards.  Many protested to the mayor and local representatives though it is my understanding the town and developer have no say, whatsoever, in how the State uses its buildings.

     Before we arrived for our most recent three-week visit, the rumor mill variously described the characteristics of our likely new neighbors on line, as follows:

  1. Hundreds of homeless and/or undocumented single men;
  2. Single parent households with multiple children;
  3. Non-English-speaking refugees awaiting sponsors; 
  4. Recently released prisoners in need of half-way housing; and
  5. All of the above.

     Upon arrival, however, I encountered a more divided and nuanced reaction.  A substantial number of residents perceive the new neighbors as an opportunity to do good, namely:

  1. Tutor young children;
  2. Teach music, art and drama;
  3. Provide job and parenting mentoring; and
  4.  All of the above.

     Surprising to me, a majority of the “men’s group,” which includes a number of retired and near-retired teachers and social workers, are itching to help.  Conversely, a substantial number of single women in the community, in particular, (obviously with exceptions in both male and female cohorts) are negative due to fear of crime. Basically, the lines are drawn on the issue of more fencing, the “do-gooders” see a positive mission of engagement and loath the idea of stigmatizing our new neighbors, while opponents argue the homeless will destroy our property values, endanger our residents and, more specifically, decry the “likelihood” their kids will invade our swimming pool after hours, maraud around our community on bicycles and will, in general, wreak havoc.


     Who’s right?  The most recent information disseminated by community representatives is based on discussions with local and State representatives.  The latter are said to have spoken with levels of knowledge on the full spectrum between complete ignorance and total certainty, but generally indicated there will only be approximately twenty intact families, fully vetted, living on one floor of one building.  That took the wind out of the sails of the naysayers… for a day or two.  Then the questions began circulating, as follows: 

  1. What if the homeless population keeps expanding?
  2. What if the State views this limited placement as a “success” and chooses to expand the program?
  3. What if (pick a catastrophe)?


     What, finally, is my position?  Child and grandchild of immigrants that I am, I’m inclined towards the liberal, more hopeful view of the situation.  However, I’m also aware of the definition of a conservative, by some, as “a liberal who has been mugged.”  Not having personally experienced an assault, am I just naïve? 

     For perspective, I look back to my parents, both of whom were mugged at different times in the 1990’s in Philadelphia.  My father’s head was bloodied, and his wedding ring stolen; my mother’s pocketbook was stripped from her arm, her shoulder permanently injured in the fracas. Most likely, their assailants belonged to the impoverished, if not homeless, strata of society.  Either or both of my parents could have become embittered.  Certainly, each felt disdain, or worse, for the individuals who accosted them.  However, they didn’t let the experience cloud their overall views.  They continued to vote for the more humane of our political parties, to support the right of all people to live in any and every neighborhood. 

     With appreciation for my parents’ moral consistency and admittedly with the luxury of our limited presence at our second home, I’m coming down in favor of this use of the State property.   There must be some little kid who needs help in tennis or pong pong or soccer….