From Riches to Rags…to Riches
BY DARAH RIFKIN
The small glass building attached to the basement of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church looks inviting. Its glass facade contrasts with the opaque, stone-encrusted and stained-glass church that sits to the left of its entrance. Inside this modern-looking building, the walls, ceiling, and doors are starkly white. Like blank canvases, they wait for a splash of color or inspiration to relieve them from their pale hue. Bold black writing appears on each door.
The building, 1151 Mass. Avenue, is home to numerous Cambridge Social Service and Welfare Organizations. Signs for Spare Change News, the Homeless Empowerment Project (HEP), and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) are posted on doors one through seven. On door number eight, a colorful string of quilted tropical birds hangs from the top of the frame. The organization on this door has no acronym. It reads: Solutions at Work.
Inside the office, the founder and manager of Solutions at Work, Macy DeLong, cannot be found at her desk. Her coworkers laugh when they are asked as to DeLong's whereabouts. “Where isn't she?” replies Solutions' Human Resources Administrator Judy Stirrat. “She'll probably be back soon.”
As Stirrat predicted, after a few minutes, a black blur races quickly toward the bird-enshrined door. A petite woman, frazzled in appearance and movement, emerges from the blur. Dressed in all black and sticking out against the white painted hallway, Macy DeLong reaches her office-the Solutions at Work headquarters.
If anyone were to add color to the bare walls of 1151 Mass. Avenue, it would be Macy DeLong. After just a few minutes of conversing with DeLong, visitors can tell that her personality matches the tropical décor she so proudly enshrines on the whitewashed door of her familiar office. But DeLong's amicable personality and proclivity for door décor mask the struggle she faced during her lifetime. For nine months, Macy DeLong, the founder and manager of Solutions at Work, was homeless.
DeLong has shared her street-dwelling story with audiences many times. At discussion panels and university seminars, this veteran speaker uses her story of homelessness to preface the larger message she wants Boston residents and college students to remember: how subconscious stereotypes about homelessness contribute to Boston's poverty trap. And DeLong's 'riches to rags' story definitely defies all stereotypes. As a Harvard University researcher for 19 years, DeLong would have never believed that she would eventually become homeless. But, on a chilly October morning in 1988-after she walked out on her marriage and home in Lexington, Massachusetts-DeLong found herself exactly where she never expected she would be: living on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
For nine months, DeLong joined the over five thousand Bostonians living in poverty. After four days of demeaning and belittling experiences in shelters, DeLong decided to sleep on the streets of Boston-narrowly escaping rape and death by knifepoint in the process. But DeLong's homelessness experience prompted her to found an organization that would help the greater Boston community. Solutions at Work, a nonprofit organization that teaches the homeless how to take control of their lives, get jobs, and support their families, has become DeLong's keynote contribution to the homeless community in the Boston area.
DeLong's small frame slumps on the steps of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church as she begins to tell the story of how she found herself in an economic depression. Before she opens her mouth to reveal her burdening past, she pauses to push her slightly frizzed, salt-and-pepper colored hair behind her ears. She smiles halfheartedly. “I come from a family that values education and the mind,” DeLong begins. “So imagine how my family would feel when their oldest daughter just falls apart.”
Until she reached her late 30s, DeLong's life was picture perfect. After proving her academic excellence at Colby College in Maine, DeLong landed a career working as a Harvard University biology researcher. For 19 years, her life seemed to be going according to her family's structured plan: she had a job at an academic institution and was using her mind to its utmost potential. She was also happily married and ready to start a new life with her husband.
But personal struggles soon began to affect DeLong's professional life. Multiple failed attempts at pregnancy weakened DeLong's psychological stability. Her picture perfect life was beginning to crumble. She became hopeless, depressed, and even attempted suicide. DeLong was hospitalized and given antidepressants after her suicide attempt, but the drugs only made her more dysfunctional.
As the months continued, DeLong's bipolar disorder worsened. She could not focus at work-“I was either sitting in the corner not doing experiments, or lining up ten thousand experiments to do at once”-and continued to distance herself from her family's support system. “When you are depressed, you isolate yourself from everyone because you think you are not valuable enough, and when you are manic, you isolate yourself because you are on such a high that you think you can fix all the problems in the world without help from anyone. If people won't go along with you, you say, 'Screw 'em, I don't need them.'”
This 'screw them and leave them' attitude is what eventually caused DeLong to lose her job at Harvard. But although DeLong's job layoff and emotional instability caused her to slowly sink into economic depression, her downwardly spiraling life crashed in October of 1988. This was the day that DeLong-after letting her mental illness control her rational thoughts-listened to the paranoid voices in her head and left her comfortable life in Lexington, Massachusetts, to live on the streets of Cambridge-not too far from where the Solutions at Work office is currently stationed. This was the day that Macy DeLong, Harvard University researcher and biologist, became homeless.
DeLong gently thumbs the small yellow bow on the size-seven pink spring dress that hangs on the cool silver clothing rack of the Children's Clothing Exchange. The perfectly intact pink dress that DeLong holds in her hand will be used to clothe one of the many lucky children whose parents take advantage of Solutions at Work's clothing program. The Children's Clothing Exchange, located just ten minutes away from the Solutions at Work office, is one of the many programs Solutions offers to homeless individuals living in the Boston area. As a barter service that exchanges high-quality seasonal clothing to homeless and low-income families with growing children, the Exchange provides families in need with basic necessities for everyday life.
As DeLong arranges the little shirts, pants, and dresses by size on their rack, she excitedly talks about the Children's Clothing Exchange. “When someone comes to the door of the Exchange or Solutions in general, they are by definition someone who is valuable. Our goal is to make sure we continue to make them feel valuable.” And DeLong sticks to her mission. Every article of clothing in the outlet is examined to make sure that none are tattered or torn.
“The Children's Clothing Exchange is like a mini United Nations,” says Cai, a worker in the Exchange who asked that her last name not be used. “It is wonderful to see that people of all nationalities and religions can come to one place and get quality clothes, toys, and cribs for free,” she continues. “I sit here folding the clothes and I think, 'Wow, these clothes are so cute! And free!'”
The idea of the Children's Clothing Exchange is simple: homeless and low-income families trade for what they need-seasonal clothes, toys, books-and then bring the items back when the season changes or when their child no longer needs them. “I commend Macy because she always gets the best of the best clothing,” Cai adds.
The Children's Clothing Exchange was one of the original concepts of Solutions at Work's umbrella organization. It, along with the Furniture Bank, a program that provides inexpensive or free furniture to individuals transitioning out of homelessness, and Moving Up, a low-cost moving service, were the first three programs to be introduced. Even though most of Solutions' programs began in April of 1989-just two months before DeLong transitioned out of homelessness-Solutions did not receive corporate status until four years later. “October 7, 1994!” DeLong proudly yells, her voice jumping two pitches and her fist waving in the air as a symbol of triumph. DeLong, one of many original founders of Solutions, is actually the only founder who never left.
The story of DeLong's eventual transition out of homelessness parallels the lengthy process Solutions faced to become a government-recognized organization. After four days of demeaning experiences in the Boston shelters-“The first night I was there my shoes and ID were stolen and I was held up at knifepoint in the bathroom”-DeLong decided that it was safer to sleep in the subway and the Harvard Square graveyard than wander from shelter to shelter. “In the shelters, I watched everyone being treated like garbage. The workers treated me in a very belittling way and did not respect me for any intelligence at all. So, after four days, I left. I didn't look at any other options at that point. I was going to have nothing to do with shelters.”
After abandoning the Boston shelters, DeLong made friends on the streets. Although she did not always look for friends in the right places-many of the people she encountered were drunks and drug addicts-the ones who proved trustworthy taught her how to watch her back and provide for herself through the cold Boston winter of '89. DeLong eventually stopped taking her medication, and her mental condition gradually improved.
As DeLong adapted to her new way of life, she grew determined to improve the lot of her fellow street companions. With the help of a social justice priest, DeLong, and others like her, found themselves sitting in a room with large and small shelter providers to talk about injustices in the social system. “We all came together around one issue, which was what was going to happen when the state dumped funding on the large providers and said to open up shelters for two months and then close them again,” DeLong said.
Together DeLong, her fellow street-dwellers, and the providers and patrons of the Boston shelters created the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (MHSA), a statewide public-planning alliance of over 75 organizations serving homeless individuals. Solutions at Work became the first of many organizations that emerged from the MHSA.
The sleek silver phone Macy DeLong grips in her boney hand begins to ring with a loud and obnoxious impatience. Jarred from her nostalgic recollection, DeLong looks at the little item that has caused such an annoyance. “I'm so sorry,” she apologizes. “It's been a really hectic day.”
DeLong looks at the screen of her phone and quickly answers it. She makes sure to address the caller by forename and ask him how his day has been. Then she talks business. Although DeLong switches from friend to businesswoman in a split second, her tone does not change. Her facial expressions are the only giveaway that she is beginning to feel the stress from her exhausting workday. Her brow crinkles as she tries to listen to the caller. “Oh yes. Oh, okay. Well, then, I'll see you soon. Make sure you call me if you need me to pick you up, okay?” she tells the caller. She hang up the phone and smiles.
The mysterious caller on the other end of DeLong's phone was a worker from Solutions at Work's program Get Connected. Get Connected, a recent addition to Solutions, refurbishes donated computers and gives them to people who have recently been homeless. The drop-in computer center located at the Solutions at Work headquarters on Mass. Avenue provides the homeless with free access to the Internet, printers, scanners, and fax machines.
As a multifaceted nonprofit organization, Solutions at Work is aimed at addressing the struggles that individuals face when living in poverty. Get Connected is only one of the five programs DeLong and her team of currently or formerly homeless individuals offer to the homeless community. Solutions at Work's five-service program provides the homeless with children's clothing, job attire and training, Internet access, moving services, and transportation. The main objective of Solutions at Work is to encourage the homeless to become self-reliant by providing them with basic necessities and allowing them to develop the skills necessary to become active members of the Boston community.
Solutions' mission statement directly reflects DeLong's emphasis on “breaking the chains of homelessness” by breaking down society's stereotypes about homelessness. Because Solutions is run by people who know what it is like to be homeless, its message is personal, compassionate, and nonjudgmental. According to the Solutions at Work website, Solutions mission statement is: “To empower ourselves as people who have experienced homelessness to work together in defining the problems we faced while homeless and in developing and implementing solutions to these problems.” Solutions at Work provides resources and incentives to low-income and homeless individuals so that they can develop the skills needed to lead productive and fulfilling lives.
Macy DeLong sits back down on the Old Cambridge Baptist Church steps, ignoring the fact that she is only slightly removed from the Cambridge streets she roamed 20 years ago. She admires the sunny weather and insists that although there is a slight breeze, sitting outside is much better than being stuck in “the basement”-her nickname for the starkly white office building located to her right. She breathes in deeply. The sun soaks up a long pause in her thoughts. Then she continues with her story.
"In June of 1989-nine months later-I transitioned out of homelessness,” she begins. “After being properly treated for my bipolar disorder, I could now maintain a normal life.” But although DeLong's life was now devoid of panic attacks and emotional highs and lows, her life after transitioning from street-dweller to low-income citizen was far from normal.
“After I became stable and stopped living on the streets, I moved a whole bunch of homeless people-who weren't always stable or sober-into my house in Lexington,” she says. Because Lexington is a affluent town in Massachusetts, mortgages are not cheap. And because DeLong did not apply for government loans, she had to cash in her retirement checks to afford the mortgage. “We definitely brought the whole concept of homelessness and poverty right into Lexington,” she adds, laughing. “In fact, I would say that over the past 18 years, I have brought over 1,500 people into my home.”
DeLong's retirement fund served a dual purpose. It not only paid for the home mortgage, but it also funded Solutions at Work's growth. “Before Solutions became a government-recognized program, we were just a group of programs created by homeless people. Kind of out of the same nucleus. There was no main overarch among us,” DeLong passionately explains. “But now things were changing. It was happening. Shelters were starting to listen to us.”
Although DeLong was eventually able to transition out of homelessness by cashing in her retirement checks from Harvard, not all of those living in poverty are as lucky. According to the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty, as of 2004, over 5,816 homeless individuals lived in Boston. And this should not come as a surprise. According to a Worchester Telegram & Gazette article titled “Big Gap Between Rents, Wages,” a 2006 report released by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition showed that Boston was the sixth most expensive metropolitan area in the country in which to live.
“In Massachusetts, a family must average $22.65 an hour to afford the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment.”
The causes of homelessness are universal: unemployment, low-wage jobs, limited working skills, substance abuse, mental health problems, domestic violence, and poor education. However, DeLong wants Boston residents and university students to know that homelessness is not always the fault of the individual. “[When I became homeless,] everybody looked at me and saw someone who was very different than the person that they respected or cared about. And everyone thought it was my fault and my choice,” she says. But DeLong's story shows that this assumption is a misconception.
“In terms of being someone who's been abused, someone who's been crazy, someone who's been homeless…I've been all that,” DeLong plainly states. “But that doesn't mean I should be treated as less than human,” she adds. DeLong knows what it is like to live two completely different lives: She has experienced both the joys of having a steady income and the struggles of not being able to find a place to sleep at night.
“When someone on the street asks you for money,” DeLong says as she shares some insight on how to approach the homeless in Boston, “make sure you look them in the eye, regardless of what your response is. The main thing to do is look someone in the eye and be honest.”
DeLong's approach has a larger moral significance. “I think that when you stop looking away, in addition to the fact that you are acknowledging this person as a human being, I think, symbolically, it also means that in your head you are beginning to not look away from all of the problems in our society. You are not pretending that they're not there. And hopefully, in acknowledging the person who is there, you will begin to question why.”
Cai. Personal interview. 20 Apr. 2007.
DeLong, Macy. Personal interview. 20 Apr. 2007.
“Homeless Counts in Major Cities and Countries.” Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty. December 2005. www.weingart.org.
“Our Mission Statement.” Solutions at Work. Apr. 2007 www.solutionsatwork.org.
Stirrat, Judy. Personal interview. 20 Apr. 2007.
Valencia, Milton J. “Big Gap Between Rents, Wages: Mass. Called Fourth Worst.” The Worchester Telegram and Gazette 13 Dec. 2006
Arko, Chris and Blair Palmisano. A FYSOP 17 Issue: Homelessness and Housing. 2006.
“Children's Clothing Exchange.” Solutions at Work. Apr. 2007www.solutionsatwork.org.
“Get Connected!” Solutions at Work. Apr. 2007 www.solutionsatwork.org.
Solutions at Work. Pamphlet. Cambridge: Quebecor World, Universal Press.
“Thornburgh, Nathan. “Cheering an End to Homelessness.” Time. 10 Jan. 2007. 15 Apr. 2007 www.time.com.
“Who is Homeless?” National Coalition for the Homeless Fact Sheet #3. June 2006.