Why I’m Part of Lowell Votes

Last Thursday, Lowell Votes held a “Spaghettin’ Out the Vote” Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. Seventy or eighty Lowellians came for spaghetti, salad, and dessert and to talk about voting in Lowell. For those who aren’t in the know, Lowell Votes is a non-partisan, grassroots coalition of activists and nonprofits that are seeking to increase the number of people who vote in Lowell. I had the pleasure of speaking before State Representative Rady Mom, the first Cambodian-American to be elected to a state-level office in the United States.

A couple people asked for me to post my remarks. This is a version slightly edited for readability.

People at Dom Polski

Mingling before the dinner (Isaac Chanin)


Thank you all for coming. I’m Chris Hayes, a steering committee member and downtown resident. We want to thank Centralville Neighborhood Action Group for co-sponsoring this event and the Dom Polski Club for hosting. We also want to thank our community partners, Coalition for a Better Acre, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell, and UTEC, for all their support. Finally, I want to thank maybe the most important folks—those who brought the food! Suppa’s pizza donated pizzas  and Steering committee members Felicia Sullivan and Alyssa Faulkner and field coordinator Mary Tauras cooked this amazing meal. Unfortunately, Alyssa couldn’t be here tonight because of a death in the family and our thoughts go out to them. But we want to thank you all!

I wanted to kick off this event by speaking about how I became involved in this group. Aurora Erickson and I had just moved to Lowell about two years ago, right as a local election was heating up. We tried to get informed, but it was tough, even for two people who were used to politics, had access to the internet, and had a lot of time (because frankly we didn’t have much of a social life). We could tell a lot of people were working very hard, putting on candidate forums, making websites, and the City Election office was making sure everyone was registered and knew their polling place. But it seemed like even more needed to be done.

Gerry Nutter, audience

Gerry Nutter introducing Lowell Votes on behalf of CNAG. (Photo by Dick Howe Jr)

So last year, during the state election, we sat at a table outside in front of our mill apartment and registered people. We had no idea what we were doing; we just knew that we needed to make sure everyone filled out the “are you a citizen” question that everyone seems to miss. But we still did pretty well, and registered a couple dozen people. However, I remember one person in particular: a Spanish-speaking man who spoke briefly with us. He spoke a bit of English, and it was nice, but he turned us down and sat near us to wait for his ride. His ride came, they talked in Spanish for a moment, and then, she came up to us and asked for a registration form. She told us he thought he needed to pay money to register to vote.

We knew we needed help. After the elections, we decided to get together with anyone we knew that did this sort of work. We had coffee and cake and talked about what resources are out there… then we decided to meet again. And those friends brought friends, who brought people they knew, and then we all invited a lot of people we didn’t know but knew did good work, and we ended up having nearly fifty people in a room talking about increasing the number of people who vote in Lowell and providing education to everyone about what the City does and who the candidates are.

We all agreed, to do it right, we needed to be nonpartisan, non-issue, and non-candidate. Even though I’m sure I disagreed deeply on many issues with many people in that room, I knew we at least agreed that we wanted more people to vote, whether they’re from the Acre, Centralville, Belvidere, the Upper Highlands, or anywhere in-between.

Lowell map of 2013 voters

2013 Voters as percentage of voting age population per ward/precinct

Because the numbers are staggering: More than 80,000 people are old enough to vote in Lowell, but less than 60,000 are registered. A little more than half of those, 33,000 voted in the 2012 presidential election. But that dropped in the 2013 local election – only 11,500 voted. That’s not much more than one in eight people old enough to vote going out and doing so.

Why is that a problem? To answer that, we started reading studies. People who vote actually report feeling more in control of their lives and healthier as a result. Kids who went to juvenile, didn’t go back to jail as often if they started voting. Communities that formed strong ties through civic engagement and voting were quicker to recover from the recession. But even more importantly, I think we cannot be a healthy society if only one in eight people vote. The hard-working women and men in our City Council and School Committee make decisions for all of us, and I don’t feel right if my neighbor doesn’t have a say in that.

Some may ask “Isn’t it her choice not to vote?” There are a hundred reasons why she might not feel empowered. She’s too busy with two jobs and two kids to go to a candidate forum. He speaks another language, and isn’t in a social group that talks about voting much. Her family doesn’t vote, and she’s never been asked by anyone to even think about it. He can’t get a ride and doesn’t know about absentee ballots. She moves around a lot, so candidates never find her to ask for her vote when they’re campaigning.

Chris Hayes in front of audience

Me delivering remarks (Photo by Isaac Chanin)

In addition, we hear about voting constantly when a new president is going to be elected, but a local election may pass us by without us ever noticing it if we aren’t on Facebook, or listen to the local radio, or read the local paper, or talk to the right people. And so it might be a choice not to vote, but for a lot of people, the deck is stacked against that choice.

So Lowell Votes is tabling at local events, at the Farm Market, at National Night Out, and at neighborhood festivals. We’re putting up a website, asking people what issues are important to them, then sending out a survey to the candidates. We’re letting people know about the services the Election Office offers and that neighborhood groups offer. We’re organizing canvassing days where volunteers go door-to-door in all the neighborhoods and ask that question: Would you vote in the upcoming election?

We know studies show that asking someone is the most effective way to get them to vote. And that’s why I think what we’re doing is important. We’re going to the new residents who don’t have a friend in Lowell yet; we’re going to the man who speaks only a little English and doesn’t know voting is free; we’re going to the woman who doesn’t even know we have a local paper but cares about whether we make a choice to fix a street, fix a school, plant a tree, or lower taxes. And we’re saying to them: your voice matters to us – we want to hear it.

Rady Mom in front of Audience

State Rep. Rady Mom delivering remarks (Isaac Chanin)

I’m not speaking for all of Lowell Votes tonight, because I know each one of us comes with a different concern in our heart. Some of us are most concerned about making civic education more accessible, others may be most concerned about the language barriers, others might hope future generations are inspired to run for City Council or US Representative or even President. However, we’re a coalition that agrees that we need to help more people to vote in Lowell, with a special emphasis on those who face barriers; and that the best way to do that is through a lot of hard work and one-on-one conversations.

We know we won’t reach our goals overnight, or even in this election. This is why we’re hoping to stay in for the long haul, to get people talking, inspire them to start doing research on their own, listen to the radio or read the paper, and talk with their friends about how we can continue shaping our community together. Thank you so much for coming tonight and helping us do that. I’d like to introduce our new field coordinator Mary Tauras now, to talk more about our canvassing efforts and how you can be involved.

Following photos by Isaac Chanin:





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Doing DIY Lowell

You may have noticed that we haven’t posted too many articles lately. Part of the reason is that we’re involved in few community initiatives, including “DIY Lowell.” Now that the DIY Lowell website is up and running, we wanted to share our story.

D.I.Y. LowellDIY Lowell is an initiative to try to capture all the ideas for projects and events people have and help them make those ideas a reality. For example, someone may have an idea for a temporary art exhibit, share it on Facebook, and then forget about it. We want to help connect that person with an artist, with someone who knows how to get the permits, and with some funding.

We’re doing this by inviting everyone to share ideas on a forum and in dropboxes around town until June 15. On June 20 until the end of June, the ideas will be up for a vote by anyone who registers for a summit. Our goal is to narrow down the ideas to a small handful that summit attendees would be interested in working on. We have a few guidelines: ideas can’t be expected to cost more than $1,000, they should be completed by the end of the year, they have to relate to space open to the public, and they can’t be illegal.

On July 9, the summit will gather DIY Lowell participants and organizational partners to create action plans for the ideas. A number of very talented folks have volunteered to lead breakout groups about each winning idea, and many organizations have pledged to attend the summit to offer their suggestions on how to kick the ideas off. Citizen working groups formed at the summit will move the ideas forward.

What about after the summit? Well, most exciting, we’ve identified some funding, and we are moving forward with some other fundraising ideas soon. In addition, we’ll keep track of all the projects and offer a helping hand when necessary, connecting those citizen working groups with the help they need.

Why are we doing all this? It’s not just to put a few projects into action, but also to identify the common barriers our working groups face. We’re interested in bringing more voices into the community conversation and encouraging folks who might not have time for a huge commitment to take on a small piece of a small project.

The DIY Lowell Story

The genesis of DIY Lowell was actually in Buffalo, during the Congress for New Urbanism Annual Meeting. One of the most exciting conversations at the conference was about “tactical urbanism” and “lean urbanism.” The idea is that activists or planners can make short-term, sometimes temporary projects that actually change the urban form long-term. This includes anything from making a parking spot into a mini-park, putting pop-up stores and displays in empty storefronts, and guerilla gardening.

This inspired Aurora and I to come up with a few ideas of our own for Lowell. We thought some chalking or painting of the concrete jersey barriers across from our apartment would spruce up Bridge Street. We talked about a trail that would lead from the National Park Visitor Center to the Boott Cotton Mills Museum just like a small version of the Boston Freedom Trail. However, the more we talked, the more we realized that there could be something bigger than just a project or two.

People talking at Mill no 5 during Transform Mill City

Transform Mill City drew a variety of folks to Mill No. 5 before Coffee and Cotton was in business

We were really impressed with the number of Lowell folks who came and participated in the “Transform Mill City” initiative. This series of meetings hosted by a student from UMass Lowell allowed more than forty participants to each meeting to share ideas on giant sticky notes on walls or tables with questions such as “What events would you like to see in Lowell that aren’t here already?” Some popular ideas were a “Firewater” display on the canals and a series of art events or markets.

This wasn’t the only idea-generating initiative in Lowell. The City spearheaded Neighborland a couple of years ago, and it collected ideas via an online website and stickers on an empty downtown storefront. Ideas included an independent theater, free downtown wifi, an expanded Farmer’s Market, and even bocce courts.

What if, however, we combined the two ideas? In school, I ran an organization that accepted project proposals and offered technical support to villages and towns too small to have their own planning departments. There’s a lot of expertise in Lowell already, and we could connect that expertise to these great ideas that sometimes seem to fizzle away. It could be democratic, where the most popular ideas are the ones that get the most attention.

That’s when we started meeting with a lot of people. It’s amazing how many people you can meet with when you’re trying to talk to every group that could be interested in the effort. I started with Yovani Baez, the City of Lowell Neighborhood Planner. She suggested meeting with a few more people, and those folks suggested others, and it soon snowballed. I had to make an excel spreadsheet with the people I met, the people they suggested to talk to, and the ideas on how we could execute our plan.

All in all, Aurora or I emailed or talked to nearly 70 people in the City before we finalized our pitch, including people from the City of Lowell, E for All, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, Coalition for a Better Acre, Made in Lowell, COOL, Greater Lowell Community Foundation, Lowell Makes, all the neighborhood groups, a few churches, and a lot of other organizations and groups. During that time, we even took a tactical urbanism tour of the Acre with ACTION.

Each interview helped us form our idea. Just to think of a small handful of examples: Marianne Gries told us to make sure our website was smartphone-compatible for those without computers; Souvanna Pouv suggested doing interviews on LTC shows to market the idea; Geoff Foster reminded us to use examples in every neighborhood in Lowell; Sean Thibodeau recommending throwing an event on a weekday, not a weekend.

DIY Lowell mock-up webpage


We created a mock-up to get feedback from our advisory committee, and with help from the community, we made it into a real webpage

Do-it-Ourselves Lowell

Although we kicked off DIY Lowell, we could never have done any of it alone.

I have to credit Aurora with coming up with the name “Do-it-Yourself Lowell,” or DIY Lowell for short. Her idea was that the organization was all about people feeling like they could take ownership of their city through these small, achievable projects. These ideas aren’t that hard or expensive to put into practice, but most people don’t have the tools, time, or contacts to make their ideas a reality on their own. We hope DIY Lowell will really let people do-it-themselves together.

A lot of others offered invaluable help as well. We’re finding volunteers through the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange, CBA is providing assistance with fund management, a local blog is hosting our website, and we may even be able to hold the DIY Lowell summit in a really cool community space for free. We’re amazingly indebted to our Steering Committee who helped us through decisions such as when to do fundraising, what guidelines to put in place for projects, and how to set up our website.

With all this time invested, you may be wondering why we personally are doing all this work. In a word, it’s fun. We’ve met so many people and we’re hoping to add to what we see happening in Lowell already: a sense of excitement and possibility. It’s a lot better than watching reruns.

Learning Lowell Anniversary Totally Terrific Top Ten Countdown

As Aurora pointed out in Learning Lowell’s anniversary post, it’s been a year since we’ve been blogging in Lowell! She talked about why she (and I) started blogging and the benefits we’ve gotten from it. I thought I would take a look back on some of our posts and a look forward on what we hope to do. I thought reflecting on our little corner of the internet would be very timely, as the Lowell Social Media Conference is coming up tomorrow, December 6.

Our blog is hosted on wordpress.com, a free (ad-supported) service with some great tools. One of those tools lets us see how many people are reading our blog and which posts get more clicks. We reached 2,000 views a month when we first started, but we’ve settled into about 1,000 views a month. This is way more than we ever thought: we figured our families might read an occasional post and that would be it! I thought it might be fun to review our top five posts, then talk about a few we wished had hit bigger.

Top Five Posts

5. An Engaged City Manager Recruitment Process

citymanagerposition-01-01Almost a year ago, the Lowell City Council began the process of selecting a new City Manager to replace departing Bernie Lynch. We reviewed guides made by groups such as the International City/County Managers Association, who recommended allowing 60 days for candidates to apply, and 30 days to interview candidates. During those 60 days, they recommended sending letters to qualified candidates identified knowledgeable sources inviting them to apply.

It’s interesting to compare this to the timetable the council ultimately used to solicit and screen candidates. They allowed a bit over a month for applications, and I believe they only advertised in a few publications and websites. The interviews focused quite a bit on the council’s hot topics: safety/security and economic development.

4. A Historic Preservation Story Unfolding: Bowers House, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, and the City of Lowell

Updated Concept Perspective Drawing

Around the same time, another surprisingly controversial issue was unfolding: a proposed razing of the Jerathmell Bowers House. The issue prompted us to write a series of posts, culminating in the blog’s longest-named and fourth-most-popular post. We talked about how, in 2010, the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust worked unsuccessfully to find a new owner but brought a lot of attention to the oldest house in Lowell. Then, in 2013, Kazanjian Enterprises bought the property and proposed a commercial structure to replace the house. The City of Lowell and Kaznjian worked to find a solution that retained the house and the structure.

As far as I know, this final proposal is the one moving forward, although a tenant still has not been found for the Bowers House. We suggested a themed restaurant, although I would expect that the house could service as offices for a real estate or insurance agent as well. If anyone has updates, let me know!

3. Quite a Task: Downtown Lowell Task Forces

Lot to Like PostcardFebruary, 2014, Councilor Belanger motioned to request that the Mayor appoint a downtown economic development task force. This prompted me to do a review of all the different groups who are active in downtown planning and all the different plans created for downtown. I still hope one day to do a follow-up on each plan, as some of them are very interesting historically and others still have great suggestions we could advance.

In April, that task force was formed, including councilor Corey Belanger; Deb Belanger, Executive Director of Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau; Danielle McFadden, President and CEO of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce; Jim Cook, the Executive Director of the Lowell Plan; and Adam Baacke, Director of Campus Planning at UMass Lowell. Additionally, the council formed a Downtown Redevelopment Subcommittee at the request of Councilor Kennedy, which includes himself, Councilor Leahy, and Councilor Milinazzo. I wasn’t able to find any meeting minutes for the Task Force or Subcommittee, so if anyone has any updates, let me know!

2. Mill No. 5: Local scene blooms where once there were power looms

Mill #5 sign is hungI feel a bit proud that we were among the first talking about Mill No. 5, which has gained a lot of traction since last March, when we wrote about the history of the building, which was built to take advantage of Steam Power, about Jim Lichoulas III’s flexible plans that change based on feedback, and about the way Amelia Tucker recruited vendors for the monthly “Little Bazaar” marketplaces.

Since then, the Luna Theater and Coffee and Cotton have both opened, along with a number of smaller shops. Mill No. 5 has some exciting programming going on during December, including a Farm Market each Sunday, 10-2:30; Holiday Shopping Pop-Up shops every weekend; a 12/13 OtherWhere Market featuring fantasy and sci-fi goods; and the second annual Totally Bazaar tomorrow, 12/6, at noon!

1. Bicycle Lanes, Data-driven Decisions, and Community Visions

Truck in bicycle lane in Lowell, MassachusettsThe most popular post was something we had to write very quickly, as it was in response to a City Council motion we had learned only days before: removing the bicycle lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard. We showed some pictures of the lanes, looked at the goals as articulated in several city plans, and examined the design of the lanes in relation to National Association of City Transit Official (NACTO)’s comprehensive Urban Bikeway Guide. Our conclusion was that two lanes should be enough for the small amount of vehicular traffic on Father Morissette, that the bike lanes conformed to recommended design but could be improved (with more money), and that we constantly need to show our support for the plans we made together.

Councilor Mercier suggested she worded the motion in such a provocative way as to determine if there was support for the bicycle lanes and encourage cyclists to come to the meeting. The council passed an amended motion to “call for the city manager to review the configuration of the bike lanes and traffic lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard, and report back on ways to make the road safer for vehicles and cyclists.” The City’s former transportation engineer, Eric Eby, invited the community to a public meeting to discuss options, and I have heard the City finally settled on painting “Bicycles Only” in the lanes. There was discussion of forming a public Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee as well, but that has unfortunately not occurred, even as several pedestrians have been struck, with one fatality, in recent months. I hope to make a follow-up post on bicycle and pedestrian issues in Lowell in the coming weeks.

My Personal Top Five

I also wanted to highlight posts that I thought were especially important or interesting, but never got as many views as the more popular posts. I suppose this is my personal top five:

5. Lowell’s Buried Past: The Cemetery and Beyond

Dick Howe in front of Bonney Memorial

This was a short post that Aurora and I put together, but we felt that there was so much to say about Dick Howe’s cemetery tour beyond that it’s simply fun. We wanted to suggest that all of Lowell can be like the very-popular cemetery tours. It can surprise, educate, and make us reflect on ourselves in ways other cities simply can’t. I hoped to start a conversation on how we can bring that side of Lowell forward with the same strategy Mr. Howe uses, and I still hope that conversation starts.

4. The Buzz about UMass Lowell Fuzz

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MAWe didn’t see too many community members at the Coffee with a Cop event in October, but everyone there seemed to really have a great time. It felt as if it advanced the goal of creating community between police and residents, and we learned quite a bit behind the philosophy of the UMass Lowell Police. We were surprised that some officers were attracted to UML so that they could interact with people beyond the usual roles of “criminal” and “victim” and that officers feel that things have improved only in the last few years. We hoped to share some of those benefits with our post.

3. A Tale of Two Cities: Salem and Lowell

salem3Aurora made an amazing comparison of Lowell and Salem, which attracts thousands upon thousands of tourists. She noted that Lowell had similar advantages to Salem, including roughly the same distance from Boston and a walkable core, but didn’t capitalize them in quite the same way. As the city talks about marketing, I think the suggestions in this post are a great way to think about how to package Lowell as an immersive day experience for visitors and residents alike.

2. First Thursdays: Art Battles and Big Pictures

Live Art Battle in Lowell on First Thursday artists painting

Our post about Lowell’s First Thursdays wasn’t just a description of our experience at the fun summer event, it was also about how a single, key person was instrumental in bringing a great event to Lowell; about how a series of events might have to build over time; and about what goals we’re trying to meet and what audiences we’re trying to attract when we talk about “downtown revitalization.” I have thought about this post quite a bit when thinking about the own Lowell projects I’m helping organize.

1. What can Lowellians do about homelessness? LTLC Interview Part 2

ltlcI did an extensive interview with the former director of the Lowell Transitional Living Center, David McCloskey. Part 2 of that post and a follow-up about Living Waters didn’t receive the large number of views captured by Part 1. Mr. McCloskey discussed the difference between passive and aggressive panhandling, the discussions he had with former clients about panhandling, and his experience with Lowell’s cooperation with the center. Perhaps even more importantly, we discussed the problem with Massachusetts’s housing costs and how people can volunteer to help or even take political action. If I could ask everyone to read just one post, it might be this one.

What’s Ahead?

Writing this post, it makes me think of all the posts I still hope to write. We just released the first in a series about refugees, and more will be coming soon. Another series is also in the works: discussing Lowell High School’s location and the dilemma of moving or keeping it in-place. As I mentioned before, I hope to discuss traffic and transportation in Lowell: where the traffic is, how it can (or can’t) be addressed, and what is planned for Lowell. We also would like to talk about friends and family we’ve hosted and their impressions of Lowell.

We also go to a number of events and restaurants, and have a lot of photos and stories. We wonder how people like reading about them: should each event or restaurant be a very short post, should there be some sort of Lowell guide that we update each time we go out, or is there another good way to share our stories and photos? Please let us know in the comments! We try to respond to all requests as quickly as we can.

Immigrants in Lowell: Responsibility, Cost, or Something More?

As the stories in the rediscovered International Institute archives highlight, immigration and refugees have been an integral part of the Lowell story since its founding. People from other countries built Lowell, labored in its factories, and created the diverse institutions we enjoy today. Nevertheless, the question of costs of providing services is valid. This is the first in a series of posts exploring immigrants and refugees in Lowell.

The issue of refugees in Lowell was elevated last July when Mayor Rodney Eliot made a motion requesting a report regarding the costs of newcomer students to Lowell’s school system. Councilor Belanger also spoke, expressing concern of the cost of immigrants:

…we got a problem that’s serious and it’s going to get far worse, of refugees, undocumented or illegal aliens, which ever term you choose to use, are pegged for Lowell.  We are on that list.  Many of which are unskilled and uneducated.  And they’re on their way. -Corey Belanger

Richardhowe.com transcribed his complete remarks here.

The concern grew out of Governor Deval Patrick’s offer to shelter unaccompanied minors who crossed the US-Mexico border, but Councilor Belanger mentioned resettled refugee families from the Congo in the same breath.  The off-the-cuff remarks may be a symptom of a genuine confusion about the differences between immigrants, refugees, and other populations.

Although there ultimately was no need to shelter children due to falling numbers and increased immigration processing capacity, immigration and refugees remain a central issue in Lowell. Councilor Belanger and Mayor Elliot aren’t alone in worry about the cost of providing education and social services to newcomers.

However, is their fear justified? Moreover, are immigrants simply a burden the state places on Lowell, a genuine humanitarian effort the good citizens of Lowell provide, or an investment that pays dividends? We couldn’t let discussion of the costs rest without exploring all sides of the issue, because from my perspective, Lowell’s story is all about generation after generation of newcomers.

Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and Immigrants

About 30,000 foreign-born people a year are granted legal permanent residence in Massachusetts, most of who follow one of three paths: Refugees, Asylees, and (for lack of a better term) Economic/Familial Immigrants. Last year, an estimated 415[1] of these moved to Lowell. Each has a different legal status than one another and the unknown number who have immigrated to the US illegally. Before talking about foreign-born citizens in our community, I wanted to make sure I have my terminology correct!

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) uses a 1951 Geneva Convention definition of refugees: those who have fled their country for fear of racial, religious, ethnic, or political persecution. In some cases, agencies and nations expand the definition to include those fleeing violence or war. The UNHCR grants refugee status to people across the world, but this status does not entitle people to many services beyond access to a refugee camp. Although counted as refugees by UNHCR, they may lack any official status in any specific countries.

Before people are officially registered as refugees, they may be more accurately called “asylum seekers.” Each country, including the US, has procedures for determining whether an asylum seeker can be registered as a refugee or granted asylum under their own law. For this reason, I believe it may be more correct to call people fleeing from violence in Central America “asylum seekers” rather than refugees or immigrants. However, the United States uses the 1951 definition and only registers those fleeing persecution or human trafficking as refugees, not those fleeing violence or war.[2] An average of 26,000 people annually crossed the United States border and were granted asylum since 1995, most of whom were from China.[3]

Approximate refugees per 10000: 2.0 US average, 3.7 Massachusetts. 2002-2012 average annual refugee count from 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, population count from 2010 decennial census.However, a larger number of refugees are granted that status in other nations (such as Kenya or Jordan) live there temporarily in an urban area or camp run by an agency such as the UN or Red Cross, then are referred by their host[4] to the United States. The US reviews those referrals, and accepts about 60,000 refugees a year (recently often reaching the limit of 70,000); about 2,400 annually settle in Massachusetts. This is the typical story of the Congolese families Councilor Belanger mentioned, along with many of Lowell’s Cambodians, Burmese, Bhutanese, Iraqis, and many other groups.

The UN estimates that 10.4 million refugees currently live in camps, shelters, and urban areas worldwide. An additional 4.8 million live in camps in the Middle East. The UNCHR is only able to resettle about 1% of those 10.4 million annually, while many live in camps for decades. Rather than getting better, this trend is accelerating in recent years due to Syrian, Iraqi, and other conflicts. Notably, the US accepts as many refugees as all other countries put together.

Finally, economic and familial immigrants are those who cross borders to reunite with family or for economic opportunity. The United States has granted legal permanent residents to an average of 870,000 immigrants annually since 1995.[5] These economic immigrants usually do not fear persecution like refugees, and the US government generally admits them because they have family in the US or have an identified job or special skills. It is difficult to count those crossing the border illegally, but it is generally accepted that people crossing the border illegally are also usually trying to reunify with family or seeking an escape from crippling poverty. An interesting 2013 study suggested that Mexican border crossers often felt they had a higher moral obligation to provide for their families than to obey US immigration law.

Lowell’s Irish, French Canadians, Greeks, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanians, Armenians, and Portuguese populations were largely economic/familial immigrants. It’s important to note that when many of these groups were arriving, immigration was largely unrestricted. Prior to 1875 there was no restrictive immigration bill, and only Asians were restricted prior to 1921.[6]  Also of note is that the Spanish-speaking population of Lowell is largely Puerto Rican, US citizens by birth.

In summary, asylees cross the US border to ask for asylum and are a relatively small group. Refugees are registered overseas, then a small number are referred to the US. Economic/familial immigrants are by far the largest group, more than eleven times as many legal economic/familial immigrants arrive in Massachusetts than refugees each year. Each of these groups has different legal status and challenges, and each must complete naturalization procedures to become United States citizens. Despite their differences, I’ve learned that the groups bring similar, quantifiable benefits to their host communities despite their differences.

*Chart: 2002-2012 average annual refugee count from 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, population count from 2010 decennial census.

“Responsibility and Cost”

Massachusetts officials clearly walked a tightrope trying to discuss the unaccompanied minors over the summer. According to the Sun, Senator Eileen Donaghue said, “The city of Lowell has always opened its arms to newcomers to this country, and that comes with quite a responsibility and a cost.” Others were more blunt. In the same article, Representative Marc Lombardo of Billerica “said Massachusetts has already allowed immigrants to take advantage of too many state resources.”

The existence of established refugee resettlement programs complicate the issue. A month before Governor Patrick’s announcement, the mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts requested a halt to Somali refugee resettlement in his city, and the mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, unsuccessfully asked for a moratorium of refugee resettlement in his area in 2011. Those mayors argue their cities cannot absorb additional refugees because of scarce employment opportunities for non-English speakers and tight housing markets. Some argue these politicians are using refugees as scapegoats for deeper problems, while others argue that they are purposefully creating a wedge issue by mixing otherwise liberal voters’ negative sentiment about undocumented immigrants with legally resettled refugees.

Ostensibly, however, the Mayors’ arguments echo Senator Donaghue’s: A community has a responsibility to provide adequate housing and education to refugees and these services have a cost. What is that cost?

Immediate Costs

The first costs are immediate: transportation to the US, securing and furnishing housing, assistance with state and federal forms, school registration, and other immediate transition needs. A federal travel loan funds their transportation, while regional nonprofits provide the other services. In Lowell, the International Institute of Lowell provides these services.

I found a good estimate of costs by Baltimore’s refugee assistance nonprofit. They estimated the cost for this initial assistance as $5,291 per case in 2009—higher for families, lower for single people. The federal government provides an $1,800 per refugee grant to nonprofits, $1,125 of which goes directly to refugee families to pay for rent, clothing, and other necessities.[7] The rest must be locally raised through private donations, volunteer power, and in-kind donations. Because of their importance, we visited the International Institute, and we’ll talk about them in a future post.

Education Costs

Longer-term costs are more difficult to quantify. Mayor Elliot specifically asked for the costs of educating newcomer students. The report that Superintendent Franco provided to the council states directly:

The percent of students who are English Language Learners has not dramatically increased, however, the number of students who come to this country with Refugee status with no or limited formal schooling has increased and requires the district to expand Newcomer Programs.

These newcomer classes are specifically set up to acculturate students and teach English. According to the Superintendent’s report, the number of “newcomers” in Lowell K-12 increased by 253 students in 2013, or 49%, much higher than the previous four years. About half of these came as federally-resettled refugees, the others were other types of immigrants.[8] Each new Newcomer class costs $135,000: $115,000 for one teacher and one paraprofessional, and $20,000 for setup. In the last two years, the school system added seven of these classes, and three more are approved for next year.

However, answering the question requires more than a simple number. Other questions remain: how much more Newcomer classes are per-student than standard classes and what portion does the state already pay? The 2015 city budget plans for nearly 89% of Lowell’s school costs to be reimbursed by the state, even after increasing Lowell’s local contribution from 2014.

Healthcare and Social Assistance

Although the council did not directly suggest the cost of social assistance to refugees is a concern, I have heard this argument before. Like citizens, refugee families with children are eligible for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and refugees with disabilities or senior citizens are eligible for Social Security. Many refugees are also eligible for Medicaid. Because they’re the same programs citizens use, these costs are shared by Massachusetts and the federal government.

The US Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) funds some programs specifically for refugees. Refugees who are low-income but do not qualify for other programs can take part in a Refugee Cash Assistance and Refugee Medical Assistance programs for eight months.

However, these are not permanent costs for most refugees. The ORR’s annual survey found that about 46% of refugees that arrived between 2007-12 received cash assistance and 61% received Medicaid. However, those who had been in the US the longest were less reliant on federal programs. For example, 27% of refugee households arriving in 2007 received Medicaid in 2012, nearly identical to the overall US rate of 26% receiving Medicaid in 2011.

Finally, ORR provides additional funding for refugee services that aren’t tied to a single family:

  • A matching grant of $2 for every $1 locally raised by nonprofits such as the International Institute to assist refugees become self-sufficient.[9]
  • Competitive grants for programs that, for example, help survivors of torture or for matching refugees’ investments toward home purchase, small business development, or post-secondary education.[10]
  • Funding for social services used by refugees on a state-by-state basis
  • Targeted Assistance for areas with large refugee populations: In Massachusetts, this includes Hampden (Springfield), Suffolk (Boston), and Worcester Counties, but not Middlesex. However, the Lowell School District does receive supplemental funding applied on a formula basis on refugees resettled, which is funneled through the state.

So, how much does a refugee cost?

Long story short, studies I’ve seen that quantify the cost/benefit of refugees show a net positive after a several years. These are not selected studies of communities with skilled refugees, but the same type of mixes Massachusetts receives. Notably, the costs are mostly paid for by states and federal government, while local governments and states reap most of the benefits.

While exploring the costs of refugees, I learned that it is hard to estimate a per-capita cost for all the services refugees use and how they’re funded. The ORR budget could be one proxy, but the $1.12 billion budgeted in 2013 covered administrative and processing expenses but did not cover expenses such as Medicaid. Despite this, there have been some notable efforts to capture the direct costs of refugees:

  • 1997 paper by a University of Richmond professor made an effort to estimate the direct cost of providing social services, and came up with $9,000[11] ($14,000 in 2014 dollars) with costs going down as the families become self-sufficient. He estimated state bore 22% of these costs. However, circumstances vary so much by individual, and so much has changed since 1995, I do not know if that number is useful beyond an order-of-magnitude estimate.
  • A more recent 2000 paper by a Hamilton College researcher estimated a local cost of $4,413 ($6,111 in 2014 dollars) for the first year of refugee households in Utica. This is nearly double the $3,080 estimated in 1997, but includes education and counts households, not individuals, unlike the 1997 study.
  • Finally, a 2013 paper considering state/local costs of healthcare and education in Tennessee estimated an average education cost of $1,692 per individual refugee in 2012 ($1,747 in 2014 dollars).

It is at least clear that refugees do have long-term healthcare and social service costs, and hosting states may pay several thousand dollars per refugee on average, at least for their first year. The federal government shoulders the rest.

However, only looking at costs is problematic at best. The fiscal benefits often outweigh the costs in the long-term:

  • The 2013 paper also estimated the amount of taxes refugees and businesses they owned paid: it was slightly more than the amount they “cost” in health and education services.
  • The 2000 paper created a cost/benefit model that used real data and assumptions to estimate that a refugee cohort in Utica, NY becomes an annual local net fiscal positive after six years and that their program that admits 750 individuals a year essentially pays for itself in increased tax revenue by year 23.
Chart showing fiscal impact of Refugees in Utica, NY.

Chart showing fiscal impact of refugees in Utica, NY. Different lines represent different discount rates (inflation assumptions). (Hagstrom, 2000)

I was worried that research for the post would show that refugees were a net fiscal drain. I thought that we should welcome refugees simply because they need help and we are able, and I thought that they bring an unquantifiable, diverse vitality that sets the United States apart from many other nations, but I never thought that it’s a good idea because it generates additional tax revenue. I was pleasantly surprised when I found that refugees are a long-term net fiscal positive for communities.

What about jobs?

However, these studies focused on tax revenue for communities, not the impacts on existing families in the community. What limited research I could find on broader impacts on employment suggests refugees follow the same pattern as other immigrants: the increased activity their spending and businesses create more than offset the jobs they “take.” This is especially pronounced in areas that would otherwise be shrinking in population. 

Notably, research on refugee economic impact is actually difficult to tease out: many studies focus on economic/familial immigrants rather than refugees. Those focusing on refugees often examine the places where refugees are most prevalent: developing host nations such as Jordan. Even those granted asylum in the US have different economic characteristics than refugees resettled from elsewhere.

However, it might be useful to start with immigration research. Most research shows that low-skill immigrants tend to depress wages for other low-skilled groups such as earlier immigrants or high school dropouts, but they don’t significantly affect the unemployment rate. Although an immigrant may take a job a native-born person would have otherwise taken, the immigrant creates additional demand for jobs at roughly the same rate. A very well-cited 1995 study on the available research stated:

There is no evidence of economically significant reductions in native employment. Most empirical analysis of the United States and other countries finds that a 10 percent increase in the fraction of immigrants in the population reduces native wages by at most 1 percent.

A more recent 2003 study finds a larger wage depression among low-skilled workers: between .4 and 7.4%. However, that may be offset by other groups’ wages increasing by up to 10% as they see larger customer bases and can delegate low-skilled tasks more effectively. Immigration helps the overall economy, but might create problems for certain people at the lowest rungs.

However, the research on a national level does not suggest whether there are effects on individual communities that receive immigrants. In fact, research from UC Davis shows that in the long run, the greatest positive effect—an increase in output and wage per average worker—happens where the most immigration is taking place.

Are refugees similar to other immigrants? One can imagine many ways the groups are different. Economic/familial immigrants choose to come to the US, while violence or persecution force refugees out of their countries. Refugees may have more trauma and may have spent years in camps. However, some may actually be very educated and skilled. Iraqi refugees, for example, include doctors and engineers.

To begin with, refugees do find employment in their host communities. In its 2012 annual report, the Office of Refugee Resettlement found that refugees arriving 2007-2012 had an unemployment rate of 16%, double that of the US’s rate of 8%.

However, those who arrived in 2007 had only a 12% unemployment rate and in fact had a higher labor force participation rate (74% vs. 63%) than the US as a whole. Far from being a burden, a larger proportion of refugees who have had a few years to acculturate are employed than the US as a whole. In some years, the employment rate of all refugees was similar to that of the US population, but a large gap developed after the 2007-08 recession.

In fact, research bears out the idea that refugees start behind other immigrants, but make greater gains over time. A 2004 study at Princeton University found that refugees in a cohort of immigrants that arrived in 1975-1980 (at that time, mainly southeast Asians) earned 6% less than other immigrants in the cohort in 1980, but in 1990 they earned 20% more that others in the cohort.

This translates to positive impacts on hosting economies. In 2012, Chmura Economics & Analytics studied the impact of refugees on their host economies for Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland. It found a study showing a 1.5 multiplier of Afghan refugees in Young, Australia partly because they offset a native population decline. It also cited a Lewin Group study of refugees in Houston, Miami, and Sacramento, and found that 30 to 38% of refugee households owned a home, increasing the neighborhood stability in those communities.

The Chmura researchers used a computer model to estimate the direct and indirect impact of refugee spending in the Cleveland area and the increased economic activity attributable to refugee-owned businesses. It estimated that the economic impact of refugees in Greater Cleveland was $48 million or the support of 650 jobs in 2012. It’s not a bad return on $6.4 million, presuming Ohio spends roughly the same amount per refugee locally as Tennessee.

This is a lot of information and a lot of assumptions that Lowell might behave similarly to other similar places, but it seems that there’s more research pointing toward immigrants helping overall economies on the local level than not. However, there is not a lot of consensus on whether low-skilled immigrants depress wages for other low-skilled workers. If we are concerned the benefits of immigration disproportionately are given to higher-skilled workers and leave lower-skilled workers behind, I might suggest crafting policy based on reducing inequity.

What’s It All Mean?

Arabic language class at International Institute of Lowell

Arabic language class at International Institute of Lowell, from Richardhowe.com

Researchers contest the effects of immigration, and refugees aren’t well studied, as they are only a tiny subset of immigrants. However, even when you ignore all the immaterial benefits refugees bring such as vitality, offsetting population loss, and a greater diversity of cultural offerings, it is clear that refugees aren’t simply a cost or burden on struggling economies. Rather, they get jobs, pay taxes, start businesses, and offset the costs of early assistance: with one study saying that starts after refugees pay for all the local costs of resettlement after only a couple of decades.

Aurora and I hope to dive in with more research on this issue. We’re going to visit the International Institute, talk to a refugee family, and compare Lowell’s refugees to other cities. We hope to discuss all the unquantifiable benefits (and possibly costs) in these posts, but most importantly, try to understand the men, women, and children that we’re hosting. Regardless, I’ve definitely come to believe the price we pay for supporting newcomers isn’t just a burden; it’s an investment for Lowell.


[1] 2013 US Census American Community Survey 1-year estimate. Margin of error 335. Counts US citizens born outside of the country (Such as those born in US Territories or those born to citizens travelling abroad).

[2] The UN, for its part, pushed for an update to that definition over the summer. Also notable is that the immigration law works somewhat differently for adults, children from Mexico and Canada, and children from elsewhere. Although that’s not a focus of this article, there’s a bit of easy-to-read information in this Vox article.

[3] All stats current to 2012 from http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/ois_yb_2012.pdf

[4] Almost all refugee referrals come from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and referrals are evaluated by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. See the US Department of State’s webpage on the matter.

[5] Including refugees, recent years rival the turn of the century for era with the most immigrants to the US, although immigrants were a higher proportion of the population in the 1900s than now.

[6] In a 1921 bill, later amended in 1924, the US set “quotas” for each country. Those countries could not send more immigrants than their quota. The quotas were set to limit the amount of people immigrating from countries the US found “undesirable” at that time. These bills limited the number of Jewish refugees the US could accept during the Holocaust. Only in 1943 was the exclusion of Chinese immigrants repealed, and in 1965, our modern immigration system was more or less put in place with the Hart-Cellar Act.

[7] The grant was increased substantially in 2010. Prior to that, it was only $900. However, the value of the grant decreases each year because it does not track with inflation.

[8] Students scored with an English Proficiency 1 or 2 on a scale to 6 are given “newcomer” status. Thanks to Kim Scott for “Our Changing Population” report from Superintendent Jean Franco, and thanks to Derek Mitchell for an estimate on children arriving as federally-resettled refugees.

[9] Maximum of $2,200 per refugee served. According to Derek Mitchell of the International Institute, this money is highly restrictive and only applies to certain families. It covers rental payments for up to six months for certain families involved in certain employment programs. Self sufficiency is tracked as part of the program. Last year, the national average was about 72% of families self-sufficient within first six months of arrival. The International Institute of Lowell’s numbers were similar.

[10] CMAA and Lowell health providers have received many of these grants.

[11] This does not count the author’s estimate of initial resettlement costs, which was somewhat lower.

Folks gathered around at 2013 Harvest Festival Mill City Grows Lowell

Mill City Grows and Grows

One of the best things about working on this blog is the way it encourages Chris and I to get and stay involved in the Lowell community. It’s so easy, too easy, to get bogged down in grumpy facebook threads and the discouraging daily grind of city news. But there’s still so much going on in Lowell that’s exciting, encouraging, and even inspiring. Mill City Grows is a great example of the best of Lowell: diverse community members working together to make the city a better place for everyone.

Children pressing cider at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Prepping apples for cider press at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Why a Mill City Grows post now? I won’t bury the lede too far. It’s because their big, annual celebration of local foods, the Harvest Festival, is this Saturday. As previous years, it’s in their original community garden location, Rotary Club Park in Back Central, just about a ten minute walk south of downtown. It’s the culmination of the growing season and all that Mill City Grows does throughout the year: education, farmers markets, and community gardening. Mill City Grows takes over the park and provides an afternoon of games, demonstrations, and food. They and their partners provide hands-on activities involving cooking, bicycle safety, a “stone soup” table in which every participant contributes an ingredient and gets a sample of soup and a cider press demonstration and sampling.

Chris and I got to sit down and chat with co-founder Francey Slater and learn a little bit more about the Mill City Grows story. She said that she and co-founder Lydia Sisson had the idea for years. They had been working as an educator and as a commercial farmer outside of Lowell, but felt there was a great opportunity and need in Lowell:

There was this amazing opportunity in Lowell, given the cultural richness of the city, and the food culture in the city, and… there was a lack of opportunities for residents to get involved in growing food and in accessing healthy, fresh, and local food.

Lydia Sission and Francey Slater

Lydia and Francey, co-founders of Mill City Grows (Photo: Jen Myers)

She noted that culturally-appropriate food was also difficult to find. However, their opportunity came in 2011, when Back Central was the focus of the City Manager’s neighborhood impact initiative. Among other things, the initiative funded a project that the neighborhood itself identifies. That year, Back Central Neighborhood Association identified a community garden. The neighborhood nor the city knew how to create a community garden, so they brought in Francey and Lydia, who jumped at the opportunity.

They worked with the city and neighborhood group to recruit gardeners throughout the fall, and in the spring, they worked with the city’s Department of Planning and Development and Department of Public Works to build the garden. The first garden snowballed into new gardens and new programs, including school education, urban commercial farming, and a mobile market. Each new program was a response to a community request. The staff at Mill City Grows has many ideas, but rather than imposing those ideas, they have used community feedback to choose their focus areas.

Lowell’s support was critical. We didn’t realize how close the partnership with the city government was: it allows Mill City Grows to use designated city land and have access to water and inclusion in the blanket insurance. This has really helped Mill City Grows get started, as raising money for land leases, insurance, and other necessities is often a roadblock to new organizations.

Mill City Grows West 3rd Garden

West 3rd Garden (Photo: Mill City Grows)

Chris and I nearly lost count of how many different dividends that initial investment paid. The gardens are used by a diverse population of Lowell residents-Francey says that at least eleven languages are spoken by their gardeners. She said, “It’s a fascinating world tour to walk through, to see things I don’t recognize or see gardeners harvest parts of plants I would never think or know were edible.” The education is both cultural and practical, as community gardeners learn from one another and from the organization:

Education has always been something that we weave into every aspect of our programming, whether it’s the very technical “when to plant this seed”… to the more theoretical “how do we build a more just, more sustainable food system?”

The benefits that go beyond the gardeners: the community impact of transforming the physical spaces is difficult to quantify, but it is impossible to deny that changing a vacant lot to a raised-bed garden with folks bustling about improves the vibrancy and confidence of a neighborhood. Francey has said she has seen entire neighborhoods transform after a lot has been turned into a garden.

Apples at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

The larger community benefits as well. Francey mentioned that during the Market Basket problem, many people had trouble finding fresh vegetables within walking distance or at an affordable price, while local farmers were not able to move their stock and were losing money every day. This brought up questions to Francey on how much the community can rely on its food system when a single entity was so important. She said food banks saw their demand increase during the crisis, and she actually saw a measurable increase at Mill City Grows markets. She suggested one simple thing anyone can do to help food security:

Even if it’s one simple crop, learning how to grow a small patio garden is something we can all do.

The more direct support to farmers and local food grown and shared, the more an impact to the food system can be blunted. Of course, there are many other ways to support Mill City Grows. If you can’t make it to the Harvest Festival event, there are other ways to get involved. They’re one of many vendors selling tasty fruits and veggies at the Lowell Farmer’s Market in City Hall Plaza every Friday afternoon.  After we chatted with Francey we headed over there and stocked up almost everything you’d find in the produce section, but fresher and often tastier. It’s also important to note that many booths can take EBT/SNAP and WIC. The Farmer’s Market goes on through Halloween, so check it out, and follow them on facebook here.

Vendors selling produce at Mill City Grows Lowell

Mobile Market at Lowell Community Health Center (Photo: Mill City Grows)

Mill City Grows also does this really cool thing called the Mobile Market, where their mini Farmer’s Market van sets up around town. This is an excellent resource for those of us that the regular Farmer’s Market time doesn’t suit. The schedule is on their website here, and you can also get updates on what they’re up to by following them on Facebook or Twitter. They are always looking for volunteers, from folks who can help staff the markets to longer-term skill-specific projects such as web design.

Finally, there may be a new garden coming, so stay tuned to Mill City Grows, and maybe you can start your own plot!

Harvest Festival activities include:

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

  • Rotary Club pumpkin decoration
  • Boys and Girls Club face painting
  • Lowell Community Health Center Teen Block nutrition-themed carnival
  • South Bay Early Childhood Education toddler games
  • MCC and YWCA zero-waste activities and information
  • Murkland School arts and crafts
  • Raising a Reader scavenger hunt
  • Lowell Bike Coalition bike safety and maintenance demonstrations
  • Photo: Jen Myers

    Photo: Jen Myers

  • Next Step Living home energy information
  • Lowell Parks and Recreation kids’ games
  • Lowell National Historical Park pop-up museum about “connecting with your roots”
  • Mill City Grows cider press, stone soup, garden tours, and mobile market and popcorn station
  • Spiceventure, UTEC cafe, Sweet Lydia’s, Brew’d Awakening, and other food vendors
  • Music, live-painting, garden awards, and more!
Cider Press at Mill City Grows

Cider Press at 2013 Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Community Gardens

Community Gardens at Rotary Park (Photo: Jen Myers)


Three volunteers at LTLC

What can Lowellians do about homelessness? LTLC Interview Part 2

Yesterday, I posted about LTLC and the makeup of the Lowellian homeless population. Today, I’ll focus on Mr. McCloskey’s perceptions of Lowell and Massachusetts policy and what Lowellians can do to help out.

Local Policy and Homelessness: Funding, Panhandling, and Camps

Although LTLC places clients in housing across the region when appropriate, many have argued that housing many of the most high-need individuals in Lowell unfairly impacts the City. I’ve heard some folks argue that a concentration of lower-income people hurts people’s perceptions of downtown, but the reality may be more subtle and deserves its own post. [1]

However, there may also be an unfair drain on financial or staff resources. Because HUD largely funds only housing, LTLC often receives funds from other sources for additional support services. For example, the City of Lowell and the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) helps fund five case managers [2]. Homeless people come from all communities, making it everyone’s problem. However, host shelter communities may indeed bear a disproportionate amount of cost. Mr. McCloskey mentioned, “It would be nice if the outlying communities would support homeless efforts in and around the three major areas, Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill, all of whom have shelters.” He noted that Boston, Worcester, and Springfield all have concentrations of services and similar issues.

Nevertheless, Mr. McCloskey finds Lowell especially supportive:

I do have to give Lowell a plug. My experience in Lowell in terms of sensitivity to homeless has been excellent. The day I walked in, I had a call from the chief of police, I had a call from the city manager’s office who wanted to meet with me, wanted to know how they could help.

In addition, Mr. McCloskey supports Lowell’s efforts to move people out of camps, as they are more appropriately housed in shelters. He said of Lowell, “They do it in a much more sensitive way than I see practiced in other communities.” LTLC helps unsheltered people through an outreach program, encouraging them to seek shelter and long-term housing options.

We also discussed the panhandling ordinance. Mr. McCloskey did not personally know of any LTLC clients who panhandled, but mentioned that he did not know everyone in the winter program. It is unclear how many that solicit money in Lowell are homeless and how many are Lowell residents. However, Mr. McCloskey said:

For some people, passive panhandling is their only source of income, and the question could be asked, “how does that differ legally from other groups, agencies or non-profits?” Most courts have found that “freedom of speech” prevails and has restricted the use of codes barring panhandling. [3]

Regardless, Mr. McCloskey drew a defined line between passive panhandling and aggressive panhandling, such as preventing a person from getting into their car or obstructing traffic. He stated, “That’s illegal. That’s theft. And that should be dealt with accordingly.” Finally, Mr. McCloskey recounted an interesting story from Worcester:

We had 28 units of sober housing. Every morning, we used to have a morning meeting, with all 28 individuals. …I asked them, ‘what’s your opinion on panhandling’? Well, the two things that came out was that a lot of people that panhandle aren’t homeless, and that has been borne out by some of the review that the police in Worcester did. And second, 75% of the residents of this one sober program, said they wished they hadn’t panhandled, because it kept them from getting services sooner.

Needless to say, the question is complex. However, there are some possible ways Lowellians can help.

Regional Trends and Local Solutions: What can we do?

I’ve learned that Massachusetts, like many Northeast states, has an affordable housing problem. While homelessness is actually decreasing in the Midwest, Massachusetts now pays to house more families in motels than in homeless shelters due to overfull shelters. Other families are housing or food insecure. (A recent report estimated 700,000 residents periodically struggle with hunger.)

The costs for hotels are much higher than providing affordable housing. Nevertheless, the HomeBASE program, which provides financial assistance for rent or other services, is expiring. Meanwhile, the Federal sequester affected LTLC with a 5-8% cut in contracts. In addition, the SNAP program reverted to pre-recession levels in November. Mr. McCloskey explained that the SNAP program not only provided families with food, but also freed up cash for housing.

Many programs are dependent on local funding. The winter program that provides emergency cots for the coldest months can only be active for as long as there is funding. The City of Lowell provides $20,000 and FEMA may provide some additional funding, but staffing costs are high. Private foundations and businesses provide most of the funds. Additionally, about half of meals provided by LTLC are funded by local businesses, the faith community, and individuals through a dinner donor program. $300 provides one dinner for 120 people.

Three volunteers at LTLC

Community Service Helpers (LTLC flickr)

In addition to donations, LTLC accepts volunteers. Interested parties can contact LTLC to obtain a list of current volunteer positions. Many volunteer in the kitchen to cook or serve meals, while others sort through donated clothing to screen out clothing for children or unacceptable clothing. However, there are also professional volunteer needs, such as IT, web development, administration assistance, media, and fundraising. Food banks and other Lowell agencies also always need help!

Political action is also possible. There was a recent meeting on the issue of Massachusetts family homelessness, and letters to state and federal congresspeople on the unacceptability of housing families in hotels might be particularly effective.

I am proud to be living in a city that is engaging with the homeless problem, but troubled the issue is often oversimplified and overlooked by the mainstream. As I’ve moved forward in my career and spend most of my time combing through transit statistics or researching land use codes, it is easy to forget the “wicked” problems of poverty and homelessness I still hope to address. Living in a state that is heralded for its med-tech economic engine but has overflowing homeless shelters reminds me to always keep the issue in mind. If anyone has comments, I welcome them on Facebook or in the comments below.

1. The example that was linked here has since been removed.

2. Much of social service funding ultimately comes from federal grants that the City of Lowell passes through to area nonprofits. However, securing the funding takes a great deal of work. I hope to report on this process from the City’s perspective soon, along with my thoughts about the problems with funding social programs locally.

3. Early in January, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts contacted the City with first amendment concerns (Sun). The proposed ordinance has since been amended. This may be the subject of a future post.

What is homelessness in Lowell? Interview with Dave McCloskey of LTLC

This is part 1 of a 2-part interview. Part 2 is here.

I chose a career of urban planning partly to tackle the American pandemic of chronic homelessness. Working at a substance abuse clinic which often served homeless clients, I saw how desperate a struggle it is. I learned how complex homelessness is. This interest compels me to join the conversation in Lowell about homelessness, poverty, and addiction.

Aurora recently posted about our recent visit to Living Waters. In addition, a few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to speak with David McCloskey, director of the Lowell Transitional Living Center. He summed up how dire the overall problem is:

People who are chronically homeless or long-term episodically homeless, average age at death is 49. So when you look at it as a public health issue, it’s huge. [If it were an environmental disaster], what would the federal government do? What would they do to solve that problem, because it is onerous? These people die at 49.

The issues have been in the news several times recently. Last spring, multiple agencies cleared several homeless camp (Sun). This was followed by a contentious City Council 6-2 vote to ban “panhandling” (Sun) in the downtown historic district. The panhandling ordinance has since been discussed in executive session, and its modification will be the subject of a future post. Meanwhile, statewide, the number of families being placed in motels is at an all-time high (Globe), driven by subsidy cuts and a high cost of housing.


What is LTLC?

Dorm-style temporary housing

Dorm-style temporary housing (LTLC flickr)

LTLC is a nonprofit in operation since 1986 that contracts with Massachusetts to serve homeless residents of Merrimack Valley. We toured the facility, which was filled with remarkably good cheer. One building houses assessment, case management services, kitchen and a winter shelter with 40-45 cots. It’s topped by small, market rate apartments often occupied by former clients. The other building, renovated in 2006, has medium-term dorms large enough for 90 people and 12 long-term affordable apartments for formerly homeless adults. Although the older building itself is old and Spartan, clients and staff filled the space with optimism.

LTLC Dining Hall

“120,000 meals per year” (LTLC flickr)

“Most people–when they think of LTLC–think that all we do is provide meals, which we do and we do well, and provide a bed, and we do and we do well,” said Mr. McCloskey. However, he noted that people unfamiliar with LTLC often overlook its case management services and counseling. These services assist clients in finding treatment, jobs, and permanent housing.

LTLC is working to increase its access to affordable, permanent housing. In this “Housing First” model, a center finds clients affordable, stable housing [1] as quickly as possible. Usually this is an apartment, but sometimes the most appropriate housing is a nursing home or other program. Other issues are addressed after housing is obtained. With “Housing First” sobriety is not required: the only requirements are that clients must continue to meet with their case manager, promise to be a good neighbor, and pay at least 30% of their income. In this model, about 85% of clients nationally remained housed after two years. Housing First is gaining nation-wide attention and is successfully tackling veteran homelessness in Phoenix, AZ. Utah found an apartment and social worker costs about $5,670 less than ER and jail stays annually for the average homeless person.

Computers at LTLC

Computer lab with GED clases (LTLC flickr)

However, success requires not just housing, but social services. State-funded LTLC programs assist with first/last month rent, help guarantee rent to landlords, and negotiate issues between landlords and clients. Depending on client need, LTLC provides job placement working with the Career Center, GED education through the Lowell Adult Education Department, Mental Health services through Elliot Community Human Services, assistance accessing disability benefits, and references to detox programs with 12-step programs hosted on site.

The Sun’s Column blog recently discussed difficulties the shelter had in previous years that Mr. McCloskey credited to significant turnover in leadership, poor funding, and the resultant lack of staff and ongoing training. Since 2011, the shelter has made remarkable improvements. LTLC saw emergency shelter residents go down in 2011 to a low 40-50 per month, with assistance from the 2010 Federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program and the City of Lowell Continuum of Care.

However, the statewide affordable housing shortage and funding cutbacks have created new needs: the male dorm is now often full, and only 8 beds are available in the women’s dorm. Normally, men formerly living on the street coming in from winter would be able to have a dorm bed if they would stay sober. Now, the winter program has sometimes exceeded the number of cots LTLC has, and the shelter provides the overflow clients with extra blankets to sleep on the floor.

Who is homeless in Lowell?

(Man with cart, LTLC.org)

In Lowell, I’ve heard a lot of questions about the nature of homeless people. Where they come from, why they’re homeless, and if they’re the same people we see asking for money downtown. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires local communities to submit counts of homeless individuals. Out of about 535 sheltered and 25 unsheltered homeless people, more than a third are children under 18. Around 12% of the total are chronically homeless, 18% are severely mentally ill, and 20% have substance abuse problems [2].

LTLC serves only single adults, which represent a little less than 40% of homeless persons in Lowell. Mr. McCloskey added texture to this number, recounting the presentations he used to do for businesses and colleges:

I would do my homeless Rorschach test, and say, ‘who is the person you see when you close your eyes,’ and typically it was a middle-aged man, and they would talk about him being disshelved, maybe needing a shave, graying hair. …That’s probably about 40% of my client base. But there’s 60% out there that have other issues that made them homeless, many of which they had control over.

These issues are most often a single devastating event such as a fire, a job loss, or a medical issue. In addition, Mr. McCloskey noted that an increasing number of young people are seeking shelter. He explained that the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) charges LTLC with providing services to anyone from the region consisting of Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, and surrounding communities, and about 85% of LTLC’s intakes come from this region. Other clients may stay for three days, but must ultimately return to their home community to avoid being assigned multiple case managers, physicians, and others.

Notably, people come from across the region to Lowell, simply because Lowell provides a concentration of services. A social security office, ID registry, mental health facilities, and Lowell Community Health Center are all reachable by foot from Lowell’s central neighborhoods. Mr. McCloskey says that because of poor public transit and the expense of car ownership, “…it makes sense for [clients] to try to house themselves so they can walk wherever they have to go.” In addition, Lowell has more emergency shelter beds than the similarly-sized Lawrence.

Mr. McCloskey and I also talked about Lowell’s and Massachusetts’s policy toward homelessness and panhandling, and what interested citizens could do. Look for that in our next post!

1. Using the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s definition of housing costing no more than 33% of the household’s income.

2. January 2013 “Point in Time” counts. Of course, the number fluctuates over time.