Plymouth residents were horrified at the news in 2004 that a homeless man was crushed to death in a dumpster where he had sought shelter from a bitter winter night. It was a jolt of reality to learn how homeless people struggled in “America’s Hometown.”
Realizing that further deaths were certainly likely, three members of Christ Church Parish, with the support of the Plymouth Area Interfaith Clergy Association, called for volunteers to a meeting on Oct. 19, 2004. Five people attended that first meeting. Week by week more people came on board until soon we had several congregations and organizations represented. The first task – growing the group – then led to discussions about developing a plan to provide emergency sheltering.
Sheltering programs across the country were researched. The best model for Plymouth’s needs was the Overnights of Hospitality on Cape Cod with some modifications. Our program would rotate weekly among halls of our member congregations. We would provide an evening meal and bedding for our guests. Since we had limited resources (sheltering locations and volunteers), our program would be limited to single homeless men, running through the winter months only.
A handbook was developed which described the program and included Guidelines for Volunteers and Guidelines for the Guests.
A campaign began, to give the public statistics about the shocking extent of the obstacles facing homeless — and usually jobless — men, and to solicit donations and volunteers. Publicity included news releases to local publications, speaking to community groups like Rotary, appearances on PAC-TV and before the selectmen and other town boards. Two sizable donations helped to fund our startup costs.
Five congregations volunteered space to host the Overnights for varying number of weeks. Site coordinators and volunteers were recruited to be chaperone hosts and to provide meals. Training programs were held. Supplies, including mattresses, were purchased. Other items such as blankets, sheets, and pillows arrived through donations.
The Overnights of Hospitality began operations on Dec. 19, 2004 at Christ Church Parish with three guests. By the end of that first season, we were averaging six guests per night. The program, from its beginning, operated smoothly with few bumps along the way. The measure of its success: there has been no loss of life on the streets because of the weather; our guests express appreciation many times; the volunteers express having positive experiences; there have been no neighborhood complaints and no incidents requiring police contact. Last season – 2014-15 – averaged thirteen men per night; coldest nights saw as many as 21 guests.
In January 2005, Dr. Robert Nahill offered to loan us the use of his five-bedroom rental unit (one half of a duplex) on Court Street for our program. The Board decided its best use would be housing for those were sober. Guidelines were established and men from the Overnights were recruited and screened. Six men were brought to the Next Step House beginning in February 2005. The house was managed with overnight paid staff for two months, shifting to volunteers when funding became an issue.
As Dr. Nahill was interested in selling this duplex, the Taskforce boldly began to think about the long-term goal of ending homelessness in Plymouth.
We joined the Plymouth County Housing Alliance, a federally funded housing program, and became active with the hope of securing grant funding to purchase the Nahill property. Among the necessary steps to that goal, we needed to become a 501(c)3 organization to accept donations.
A lawyer Taskforce member offered his firm pro bono to accomplish this. Bylaws were drafted and approved on March 22, 2005. An initial board of directors was elected. The Taskforce was officially incorporated as the Plymouth Taskforce for the Homeless in April 2005. The IRS approved nonprofit status in August 2005.
In the fall of 2005, we began a partnership with John Yazwinski of Father Bill’s Place in Quincy (which later became Father Bill’s Mainspring when it merged with the Mainspring Shelter in Brockton). Shortly thereafter, Father Bill’s established an office in Plymouth with assigned caseworkers who worked with us. Our connection with them and our participation in the Plymouth County Housing Alliance helped us to gain access to federal and state housing subsidies to take homeless people off the streets and place them into single room occupancy units (SROs). We work with Father Bill’s to identify individuals from the Overnights program who would be likely candidates for these subsidies.
With our non-profit status, we could apply for funding through the town’s Community Preservation Act and the Pinehills Charitable Trust to purchase the Next Step House. After two attempts, the CPA committee approved our application. The purchase and sale was completed in August of 2011. We are now the mortgage-free owners of a duplex in North Plymouth. An application process was developed to identify new occupants for the second half of the duplex. With the help of Habitat for Humanity’s Special Unit, renovations to the kitchen and interior painting were done. By the fall the additional new units were filled plus a new house manger was in place.
Again, with CPA funding and town approval, we bought a second property in 2014 which now houses four women and a house manager. Pine hills Affordable Housing Trust provided another grant renovations to this property.
To date, over fifty individuals have been moved from homelessness to safe housing. However, our work is not done.
As the need of affordable housing continues, the Taskforce is looking to purchase additional properties with the support of the CPC.