Since the COVID-19 pandemic started our staff haven’t missed a beat in providing quality services to our families. They have gone above and beyond putting themselves in harm’s way to deliver food, supplies and financial assistance to our growing number of clients. Their willingness to do whatever they need to for their clients keeps me going every day.
As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Larry Seamans, President of FamilyAid Boston.
Larry Seamans assumed the role of President of FamilyAid Boston in July, 2018 bringing with him 35 years of both corporate and nonprofit experience. Larry is well-acquainted with the detrimental effect of youth homelessness, as his two older adopted children spent a large part of their early lives in homelessness, as did his Little Brother in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Since joining FamilyAid Boston, Larry has built a number of new and strengthened nonprofit, public and private partnerships, and developed new initiatives to meet the needs the needs of one of the nation’s largest per capita number of children and children experiencing homelessness and housing instability.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?
I’m a second generation American. I grew up with 13 family members in a three-bedroom household. We lived that way due to economic reasons which has given me some insight into the struggles of working-class families trying to make ends meet.
Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?
As part of my long career, I had been working as chief program officer at Pine Street Inn, the largest individual homeless program in New England, when an incredibly provocative map of the United States — designed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness came across my desk. The map illustrated the rate of family homelessness in every state across the country. Massachusetts had a large red dot showing we had the 4th highest rate of family homelessness. Even as someone working in the field, I was shocked by this number. I realized the severity of child and family homelessness was an invisible crisis, with far more attention, focus and resources being paid to resolve a far more visible adult street homeless population like the one Pine Street helps.
Thinking of the number of homeless children resonated with me because homelessness has touched the lives of so many people I care about; my little brother in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, my actual brother, and my own children.
Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
For homeless families in particular it’s all economics. From 2018 to 2019 Massachusetts jumped from the 6th most expensive state to live in to the 3rd most expensive state to live in and wages aren’t keeping up. A single parent in Boston working a minimum wage job would need to work 3.5 full-time jobs to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at fair market value. That’s in addition to all the time spent parenting — attending parent teacher conferences, helping with homework, cooking dinner — there aren’t enough hours in the day for a parent working a minimum wage job to make ends meet.
The recent COVID Pandemic has made the situation event more dire.
For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?
This is interesting framing as most homeless individuals and certainly most of the children and parents experiencing homeless do not start as healthy young people with a place to live, a job, an education, and a large support system. The vast majority of homeless individuals have underlying and untreated mental health and substance issues and experienced housing instability as children. Most families who experience homelessness are there due to poverty and many are trapped in an unbroken cycle of intergenerational poverty. For all there are underlying class, racial dynamics to how and why families end up in shelter.
In the City of Boston there are nearly 37,000 children living in poverty without enough resources to live safely and that’s where our families start. Going from being unstably housed to homeless is not a large leap. All it takes is one incident to push a family over the edge: a lost paycheck because a parent misses work to take care of a sick child, an unexpected medical bill, or having to make the tough decision of choosing to feed your child over paying rent. It is an impossible cycle.
A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?
In the case of homeless families, the goal of every family is to have a job and jobs are often located in cities where — at least in Boston — there is an unfortunate high cost to housing and less affordable housing in outlying areas accessible by public transportation. Almost all of our families are working and almost all are working lower income jobs because of education barriers and a lack of support to complete their education. Moving or commuting is also expensive, and for families it means uprooting their children from their schools and social environments. For most of our families, transportation to jobs poses another barrier, outside of cities there is little access to public transportation adding the additional expense of owning a car.
If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?
In Boston, it is rare to see a homeless family on the streets. Despite the fact that 61% of the homeless population in Boston is families. You don’t see them on the street because it is an invisible crisis. Spending the night on the street with a newborn or toddler isn’t feasible, so homeless families stay in cars, hospital waiting rooms, or double up with other families teetering on the edge of homelessness. People are more like going to encounter a homeless individual on the street, who is most likely challenged by mental health and substance use disorders, the best way to help them is to encourage them to go to the local resource centers available in their communities.
What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?
Giving a homeless individual money or food encourages them to stay on the street. Best way is to encourage them to seek a local shelter or soup kitchen where they will also get counseling.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?
FamilyAid Boston takes a three-prong approach to addressing family homelessness. The best way to stop homelessness is to prevent it. We recently launched two new, innovative prevention programs in partnership with Boston Public Schools and Boston Children’s Hospital. Teachers and doctors are often the first point of contact to know when a family is struggling. We’ve partnered with these institutions so we can catch families before they fall into homelessness and mitigate the trauma homelessness has on children. There is a tremendous demand for these programs and our success rate is among the highest in the country with a 99% retention rate.
During the pandemic our prevention numbers have swelled in 2020: we had 200 children and parents newly enrolled in these programs from January to March, and more than 1,200 more since the outbreak in Mid-March. The prevention safety net doesn’t catch everyone though, which is why we provide also provide shelter to families that have already fallen into homelessness. Our 123 shelters provide families with clinical case management services and housing placement services to ensure families can move out of shelter and return to stable housing as quickly as possible. To address the current pandemic’s economic fallout, we are opening a new shelter in the next few months. Each year, we move 40% of our families from shelter into stable housing, well above the national average of 25%.
Once we get families back into stable housing, we stay with them. We know that the first year back in stable housing is a precarious time for families and when they’re most likely to fall back into homelessness. Our case managers work with families throughout this time to ensure they can stay in housing for the long-term. 98% of the families we work with remain in their own housing a year after moving out of shelter.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?
The homeless and housing-insecure families that FamilyAid Boston serves have been in crisis since schools, daycare centers, and all-but-essential workplaces closed their doors in March. With each passing week, the long-term economic damage to the families we serve only worsens.
Although it is nothing we have done before, we immediately began providing emergency relief to the 1,200 children and adults currently in our care who indicated that they were in dire need, providing food, supplies, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to our families, increasing our shelters’, housing and office disinfection frequency, and installing equipment designed to reduce community spread or to monitor the health of sheltered clients and staff. In addition, we are supporting children’s access to education by upgrading internet service in our shelters and purchasing Chromebooks to children who have not received them from their schools. These additions also help parents’ to access public information, benefits and resources.
The humanitarian relief work that we are undertaking is happening while the majority of the staff works remotely in keeping with the Commonwealth’s stay-at home orders. Those engaged in the frontline work are fully protected by PPE and practicing appropriate social distancing when possible. All frontline staff working in the community, including shelter managers, facilities staff providing disinfection services, and all staff helping to procure, package and distribute food and supplies to our families are paid extra “hazard” pay. Utility costs at our shelters are 50% higher than normal due to families sheltering in place 24/7. We have forgiven 3 months of rent for families who are live in housing owned and operated by the agency to stabilize their precarious financial situations.
Through the end of June, we project more than $1.1M in pandemic-related expenses that are above and beyond our ordinary operating budget, but necessary to keep our vulnerable clients and staff safe. Given the likely closure of camps and slow return of the economy, we anticipate we will need to continue to provide support to our families well into the fall.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
Every day I am inspired by the amazing work of FamilyAid Boston’s staff and the resiliency of our clients. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started our staff haven’t missed a beat in providing quality services to our families. They have gone above and beyond putting themselves in harm’s way to deliver food, supplies and financial assistance to our growing number of clients. Their willingness to do whatever they need to for their clients keeps me going every day.
Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?
I’d love to share a story about our work during the COVID-19 pandemic and our client Laura. Laura is a single mother of two girls, ages 6 and 9. Both girls are naturally curious and love learning new things at school. Laura’s 9-year-old, Kelly, had just started learning about volcanoes in science class before schools closed for COVID-19 and asks her mom every day to tell her about how volcanoes work. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Laura worked at a large retail chain in Boston. She had been there for 5 years and was being considered for a promotion to assistant manager. Once schools and non-essential businesses closed, Laura was furloughed from work, showed up at our shelters where she has had to turn her attention to homeschooling her girls in their shelter space. Laura had no idea how she would be able to feed her girls the next week as she no longer had any income. Previously, her children ate breakfast and lunch at school every day and she had just enough to get them by. Suddenly she had nothing.
Laura’s FamilyAid Boston immediately began triaging the situation with Laura expressed her worries about feeding her children. Within the day, FamilyAid Boston staff were knocking on her door in masks and gloves delivering food, supplies, and personal hygiene products. Laura was so grateful knowing she would have enough food to feed her daughters. After a couple weeks of food deliveries, her case manager reached out to Laura again and asked her if she had a checking account. Laura told her she did, and her case manager delivered the good news — FamilyAid Boston would be depositing $100 into her account each week so she can purchase the items her family needs most. The day after the first deposit, Laura went to the corner store (in protective gear provided by FAB) and bought ingredients for her daughters’ favorite meal. After she put her daughter to bed that night with full bellies, she wrote an email to her case manager: “I know you never forget me, and I am really grateful for that. I am at home with my kids all day and they do nothing but eat. I was just starting to worry about getting more food. Thank you so much for delivering supplies and giving me this money. I don’t take anything for granted especially now, and just wanted to say thank you on behalf of me and my daughters.”
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
- Advocate for more a low-income housing in high cost urban communities. There is a lack of low-income housing in Boston and across the country. If there is nowhere for working families to live then we should not be surprised by the growing number of homeless families we see.
- Advocate for minimum wage laws. Proportional to living expenses, the standard minimum wage is too low. We need people to speak up across sectors and advocate for a livable wage.
- Volunteer and donate to front line agencies that are trying to manage the economic crisis for low-income families at the bottom of the economic ladder.
If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
- Abolish super-majority requirements Sufficient low-income affordable housing
- Supporting low-income wage earners and their families
- Increase accessibility for educational and social supports for children
I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?
The sheer volume of children who are in need and the fact that unless we do something we are creating a second generation of homeless individuals. It is within our power as an agency and a society to change that.
Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?
Poverty and homelessness have been with us since the beginning of time, but we have to hold out hope that it can be eradicated. There are moments in history when there has been a significant reduction in poverty and homelessness. In recent year, there have been successful efforts to reduce the number of chronically homeless veterans and individuals. If we can do that for individuals, then certainly we can do it for children and families.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
After more than 15 years in the corporate marketing world with Procter & Gamble and Viacom, among others, I thought I had been trained to take on the challenges of the non-profit world
- “Train for a marathon not a sprint”– in corporate marketing, the world evolves around short-lived campaigns, sales cycles, quarterly earnings/marketing share. Ending homelessness is a long-haul issue, and the cycles are intergenerational. It takes a different long-term mindset to make even short gains against it and to help children overcome their difficult start while also helping their parents find housing and employment.
- “Self-care is not a luxury” I have seen many professionals enter the non-profit world because of their passion for an issue. Without proper self-care, many nonprofit executives burn out out from “compassion fatigue” as their avocational interest and concerns sync up with their professional life. As a result, the average tenure, nationally of a nonprofit CEOs is little more than two years
- “A cow has more than one fly time” — This phrase was shared with me by a fellow corporate “transfer” from the Midwest. It means that one must remain tenacious and persistent regardless of rejection or defeat. It’s something we encourage our clients to consider and one I share with staff as we see and struggle with out clients as they struggle with many ups and downs on their way to self-sufficiency.
- “What you see is not what you get” — It’s very easy, I know, for some who are well-educated and financially secure to either pity or look down on the homeless. I was one of them a long time ago. But after more than two decades in human services and working with more than 5,000 individuals that have been disenfranchised, marginalized or forgotten, I have come to see that all that separates the haves and have nots is one unlucky situation, one medical illness or a societal prejudice that prevents a person from achieving their dreams. I’ve learned to see the commonality, dignity and determination in all of us to create a better life for ourselves and our children.
- “It takes more than bootstraps” — Having been raised in a large immigrant family, I was raised to believe that all it takes is hard work to succeed. Order the course of my career, I have found that it takes more that than that: being in the right place at the right time, knowing the “right” people, being on the side of the current political bent of a community, being deemed as having the physical ability or enabled, and often times having the preferred skin color or educational pedigree. And sometimes, just sheer dumb luck.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would want people to join us in trying to end poverty and homelessness. There are 65,000 children and parents in Boston alone who are one missed paycheck away from falling into homelessness. I want people to join us in ensuring that our neighbors are able to have the basics: food, clothing, and housing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mentor, a nun from Philadelphia who came to our small coal town to educate its children, always told me, “Larry, to truly know the world, you need to walk a mile in everyone’s shoes.”
As a kid from a small town with a small perspective, I thought she just garbled the old proverb. Much later in life, I understood what these words meant as I had the opportunity to travel the world and see all of its challenges and beauty. I wish I had a greater understanding of the complexities of the world at an earlier age. Gaining a better understanding of the world, and remembering this quote, is what eventually inspired my career change from the corporate sector to the nonprofit world.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Jeffrey Bezos — We were very fortunate to be one of a select few organizations to receive a grant from Mr. Bezos’ Day 1 Families Fund to tackle family homelessness and early childhood education. I would love the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Bezos to let him know first-hand how his contribution to FamilyAid Boston has made a tremendous impact on families in the Greater Boston area.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow me on:
LinkedIn: Larry Seamans
You can follow the work of FamilyAid Boston on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn @familyaidboston.