Anti-poverty activists gathered in Springfield, Massachusetts today at the site where a tent city for the homeless sprang up 10 years ago.
About 50 people rallied on the lawn in front of St. Michael’s Cathedral -- the mother church of the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese – in the city center where the homeless encampment dubbed “Sanctuary City” started on May 13, 2004.
Michaelann Bewsee, director of Arise for Social Justice, said some good work has been done in the past 10 years to help the homeless, but she noted that emergency shelters remain full and the state has put hundreds of homeless families up in motels.
"There's not enough affordable housing, there's not enough subsidies and not enough good paying jobs so people can afford the cost of housing."
The homeless pitched tents on the lawn in front of St. Michael’s after the Warming Place –a shelter that was based out of a few downtown churches – abruptly closed on Mother’s Day 2004. During the five months the camp operated, an estimated 400 people stayed there.
"People think it would be scary, but we all looked out for each other. We had rules. We really didn't have that much of a problem,"said Christina Densmore, one of the founders of the tent city. She said it was a pivotal moment in her life.
" I just got my bachelors' degree last year in sociology and I am going to Bay Path (college) next year for my masters. But I have not forgotten. I am going to keep fighting."
Joe Cotton, who also lived in the tent city, said it focused attention on the homeless problem in Springfield. Money was raised and social service agencies were able to find homes for many of the people living in the tents.
" People reached out to me. They did not push me away. They loved me and showed me support."
At the rally, Bewsee released copies of letters Arise sent to Pope Francis and to Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno urging action to reduce homelessness.
The letter to the pope suggests using vacant church property as shelters. The letter to the mayor urged several steps including lobbying the state to provide more funding for rent subsidy programs, and convening a housing task force.
Malcolm Chu, an organizer for Springfield No One Leaves, a group that protests foreclosure evictions, has previously called on the city to stop the policy of auctioning houses seized for non-payment of taxes and work with non-profits to make the houses available to the homeless.
" Cities across the country are experimenting with things called land banks that afford new tools to develop housing, and space for businesses and green space. There are all types of ways the city could use that land to better address the needs of people."
Arise has been awarded a $20,000 grant from the Sociological Initiatives Foundation to assess housing needs in Springfield.