Six months ago, Carol Halliday had enough to do as a mother of two and a department manager of Fidelity Investments.
Then she took on another job.
After watching "God Bless the Child," an ABC television movie about a homeless family that is forced to break up, Halliday called the station to find out what she could do.
"Homelessness nagged at me," said Halliday. "Being a mother, I can't imagine how homeless families cope," she added.
The next week, she and six other callers met with officials of Cambridge's Department of Human Service Programs, who suggested that they form a volunteer organization. Called Homeward Bound, their group now raises funds for shelters and support services for homeless Cantabrigians.
Yesterday, Homeward Bound marked its first success--helping convert two old parsonage buildings at St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church near Central Square into eight temporary housing units.
At a dinner last night for groups that worked on the project, members hailed it as the first of many to make life easier for those who live on the streets.
During the dinner, Harvard's Associate Vice President for State and Community Affairs Jacqueline O'Neill presented organizers with a $10,000 check from Harvard Real Estate, the largest landlord in Cambridge.
The five activists who started Homeward Bound six months ago say they have drawn a dozen more volunhours per week. Consultant Joe McCafferty '86 a volunteer, said the group's rapid growth reflects both the commitment of its volunteers and the rate at which homelessness is increasing in Cambridge.
"Initially, nobody knew how to help," McCafferty said. "One of the main focuses of the group has been doing things: creating a volunteer clearinghouse for homeless charities, auditing books for other charities, organizing community awareness events."
The St. Paul's project was one of Homeward Bound's biggest undertakings to date, said Joan D. Hill, a Harvard employee and founding member of the group.
Volunteers started work last June on two buildings offered by St. Paul's Church for the transitional housing project. The first building, which houses two families, was completely refurbished in three weeks, with donated materials and labor, said Linsey Lee, assistant emergency services coordinator for the human services department. Familes moved in on June 30.
By yesterday, a total of five families occupied the newly refurbished buildings, she said.
More than 100 people and firms contributed time and money to the project, many helping out on weekends and after work, Lee said.
"We all went there after work and on weekends to paint and scrub and clean and organize and help Linsey. Whatever needed to be done, we did," Homeward Bound's Halliday said.
"A good part of the work was done on a pro bono basis. Plumbers, electricians and carpenters volunteered to work on the project. Companies donated rugs, furniture, lumber, a fire alarm system...a developer donated $10,000 cash," Lee said. "People worked until two or three in the morning to help us get the building ready for the winter. A construction company even put 15 workers on the job one day."
Patricia Y. Gomes, a homeless mother who moved into the transitional housing two weeks ago, said the apartment let her stay somewhere safe while she looked for a permanent home. She said she came to St. Paul's from a welfare hotel in downtown Boston.
There, she said, she never felt safe. There was one refrigerator at the end of the hallway. She kept her 13-month-old daughter's milk there, but feared strangers would tamper with it or the temperamental refrigerator would let it spoil.
"It's not easy. You've got to go through so much. Without the baby I could rent a studio and not have to worry about child care," she said. As for St. Paul's, she said, "It's a lot more homely compared to other places I've been, but it's not home."
Homeward Bound volunteers said they hoped first to help homeless people survive and later to find them permanent homes. Part of the short-term solution includes the opening of temporary housing for homeless families, they said.
Doug W. Areville, a Cambridge carpenter who has worked on St. Paul's since the beginning of October, cited the satisfaction of contributing to an appreciated and much needed project as his reasons for working on the housing.
"I work on a lot of projects for the wealthy, where you throw away a lot of money on luxury bathrooms and what-not. It's nice to do work where it will all be appreciated, where it means something," Areville said. "It just feels better working here."
Hill said she wanted to help out after seeing homeless people on the street, night after night.
"I live one block away from Elsie's. Every night I see at least two homeless people on the grates by Holyoke Center--you can't pass someone within inches of freezing to death and not do something," Hill said. "I felt frustrated and angry. With all the money and brains and resources we've got in Cambridge, we should be able to do something."
In its future projects, Homeward Bound plans to develop inexpensive permanent housing in Cambridge, said McCafferty. He said the group also plans to seek volunteer help from lawyers and corporations, as well as individuals' donations for specific projects.
Many of the upcoming fundraisers will feature a 45-minute presentation about five homeless families in Cambridge, organized by Homeward Bound volunteer Jacquelyn K. Black, a freelance producer.
Homeward Bound also co-sponsored the city Hunger/Homeless Awareness Week last week, and members ran a free showing of "God Bless the Child" to about 35 people at the Cambridge public library. The movie traced the odyssey of a mother and daughter who lose their home, then move from shelter to shelter, and finally must separate. By the end, most of the audience was in tears.
Before the screening, Marilyn Ray, a former homeless mother, told the crowd about the the difficulites of raising children without a home. "How do you discipline children when you have nothing to take away from them?" she asked. "You can never tell them to go to their room."
"A total loss of dignity--that's the worst part of being homeless," she said.
After the movie, McCafferty asked those present to join Homeward Bound. About eight signed up, Lee said.
But according to the city Human Services Department's Philip Mangano, private and public efforts to provide temporary housing cannot keep up with the growing number of homeless families in Cambridge. Last week he told the City council that three million Americans are homeless and that their number is growing at an annual rate of 15 percent.
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