Visit to a Safe Haven

13 min read

Tierney Center serves Head Start through late life

HUD’s HOPE VI program was developed to deal with severely distressed public housing through three critical factors: physical improvement, management improvement and social and community services. A few months back, Pam Goodman, CEO of Beacon Communities, LLC of Boston—which manages over 150 communities totaling more than 18,000 apartments in 13 states and Washington, DC—contacted me about a HOPE VI development they had done in Boston with a learning center as part of the redevelopment, partnering with a Head Start program and the Boys and Girls Clubs Association of Boston, as well as a group called EMPath. Pam spoke with great passion, and with her track record instilling a culture of service, efficiency, safety and compassion in both the company and each of Beacon’s properties, when she speaks up, I’m inclined to listen.

The Joseph M. Tierney Learning Center, at 125 Mercer Street, sounded like an important model of community service support. I decided I had to come up and see for myself.

First, some background: Old Colony is one of the oldest public housing facilities in Boston – a cluster of 22 three-story brick buildings on a 16.7-acre tract and was one of the most dangerous, crime-ridden public housing communities in the city, despite its proximity to the beautiful Atlantic waterfront at Joe Moakley Park.

However, South Boston is undergoing a rapid transformation to an upscale residential area, with new employment opportunities not accessible to lower and extremely low-income residents. Many households living in public housing need comprehensive services to support them in furthering their family’s economic mobility, as well as career-focused education and employment training so they can participate in the economic rebirth of the neighborhood.

The Boston Housing Authority (BHA) asked Beacon to redevelop and manage the first and second phases of Old Colony, totaling 285 apartments. Ground was broken in 2010 and those phases are now complete and fully occupied, rebranded the Anne M. Lynch Homes at Old Colony. The redevelopment was financed through HOPE VI, four and nine percent Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), Massachusetts state LIHTC, other state resources and City of Boston financial assistance. All of the Lynch apartments—one- to four-bedrooms—are mandated to remain affordable in perpetuity.

The Area Today
My brother Jonathan Olshaker, MD, is head of emergency medicine at Boston Medical Center, the largest public hospital and trauma center in New England. His department serves many of the Old Colony residents, among the most economically challenged. Currently, over 75 percent of the households are single-parent and have a median annual income of less than $20,000. Early on, Jonathan came to understand that the medical issues for which these residents come to the hospital are often the least of their problems in lives stressed to the limit by poverty, joblessness, domestic violence, addiction and lack of education. He also told me that when he started at Boston Medical, outsiders wouldn’t have wanted to venture into the Old Colony neighborhood without some sort of protection.

Which makes the transformation spearheaded by Beacon all the more amazing and heartening.

As Pam and I drive into the neighborhood, the contrast between the original red brick Old Colony and the redeveloped Lynch homes is staggering. The brightly-painted, midrise, LEED-certified buildings would not look out of place in any upscale, modern urban community. BHA currently manages the old section, but Beacon is undertaking the third phase, projected to begin early next year, when the remaining original apartment blocks will be converted into 250 new apartments, which will include project-based Section 8 contracts and some tax credit units accepting individual Section 8 vouchers.

“What is different here, what we’re after, is to provide affordable, stable, safe housing that is healthy and of high quality,” says Pam. “It’s a standard public housing lease, but we run a tough, tight ship with very few evictions. At the beginning, we meet with prospective residents to let them know what is expected, and we continue to work with them.”

The Heart and Soul
As soon as you step inside the 10,000-square-foot Joseph M. Tierney Learning Center and see the large Boys & Girls Clubs of America banner of a group of children, announcing GREAT FUTURES START HERE, you realize it is the heart and soul of the entire area, located diagonally across from Michael J. Perkins Elementary School, which most of the Old Colony children attend. Named for the late, longtime president of the Boston City Council and South Boston native—and father of actress Maura Tierney—renowned for his commitment to constituents, the center opened in 2012 and aims for nothing less than to provide whatever neighborhood residents need, from recreational to educational, supportive and workforce development programming to residents of all ages, in an effort to break the cycles of poverty and family crisis.

At the front counters in the lobby you are likely to see individuals of all races and ages and encounter Milagros “Milly” Pena, the assistant resident services coordinator and art teacher, or, as she is often referred to, “everyone’s mom” and/or Lauretta Brennan, a veteran of the EMPath (Economic Mobilities Pathways) program operating at Tierney who overcame drug addiction and personal adversity to become a critical member of the team. Milly emigrated from the Dominican Republic and though she only lives two blocks away, she says it often takes her an hour to get home because so many people stop her on the way to talk.

“Milly and Lauretta know everything,” says Tom Stokes, Beacon’s vice president for resident services. “You hang around here and you will see about 500 hugs a day.” The center has Head Start all the way up through senior services. For a large percentage of Old Colony residents, English is not a first language.

“People can just come up to the front desk and say, ‘I need help,’” Milly says.

“And we assess them; figure out what do they really need help with,” adds Loretta.

“Somehow, a deep trust has been developed,” Pam Goodman observes. “People feel comfortable sharing their problems here.”

“The prevalence of trauma, heroin use, overdoses, sexual abuse, gang and domestic violence, all the manifestations of poverty and not having enough are what these people have to contend with on a daily basis,” Tom notes.

Alyse Faiella, the Boys & Girls Club director of afterschool programs, spends much of her time at Tierney. “What we’re trying to do,” she says, “is provide a safe space, an environment and program for at-risk youth aimed at the whole child, including social and emotional learning. It’s not a drop-in program. You have to make a commitment. But once you’re here, you’re family.”

“We don’t judge people,” says Milly. “But once they’re here, we hold them to standards and get them the help they need.” For example, the center coordinates with the South Boston Collaborative Center’s drug treatment and mental health programs.

A sign in one of the upstairs activities rooms proclaims, ADVERSITY IS UNAVOIDABLE BUT NOT INSURMOUNTABLE.

“A lot of kids who grow up here can’t get the support they need from their parents, because there’s just too much going on in their lives,” says Pam. “How do you apply to college, get aid, get help with your school work, etc. Some don’t think college is even an option.”

Jose Sotz is an assistant resident services coordinator and program and technology coordinator. Born in Guatemala, he has been in a wheelchair since the age of three, when he was shot in an assassination attempt against his father, a human rights activist. After college, he worked for the Social Security Administration, but always wanted to be a youth advocate. When he came to Tierney, “I learned as I went along. I see the children grow up and help them achieve something they might not have on their own but can with an adult in their lives who cares. I think they see what I’ve had to overcome, and they can relate to that. We ask, ‘Are you hungry? Are you tired? Are you angry?’ We have conversations about how to interact with women, about hygiene. We try to give them a positive outlook. A lot of kids want the structure. With a small team like ours, we can get in-depth with each of them.”

“I feel safe here,” says ten-year-old Layla Davidson. “I am nicer now and I met more friends.”

Sophia Delmedico, seven: “I’m happy here. I do my homework with my friends.”

Jean Carlos Galvan, ten: “The Tierney means the world to me. In kickball, I used to kick weak. But now after playing a lot in recreation, I kick and catch better!”

Eneilys Jimenez, eight: “The center means health, care and inspiration to me. I have more friends, learn more things and I know how to do more sports.”

The Doc Wayne Therapeutic Sports program provides mental health counselling through sports. Therapists are called coaches and each young participant gets an individual treatment plan.

Eighty kids are enrolled in Tierney, with 45 to 55 showing up on an average day. Brendan Berger, EMPath’s director of marketing and communications, calls it “controlled chaos.” While the children are in school, Jose runs a computer lab and classes and professional development for adults. He also runs a summer learning camp for third and fourth graders. “To have a facility like this in the community where people live is huge,” he says. “And the kids are also a way in to the parents.”

EMPath’s one-on-one Bridge to Self-Sufficiency coaching and mentoring program is an active presence at Tierney. Judy Parks, vice president of Mobility Mentoring Programs and Services, explains, “Our platform is built on developing executive function skills, education and confidence. We treat both parents and children as whole people. We set family goals and tell them, ‘You can do this.’ You have to believe people are capable of great things. For many of them, the skills of everyday job life are not familiar, so, how do you address these challenges – to build resilience and perseverance, the need to be able to pay the rent and reduce crises for children? Once people see that they can achieve this, it’s liberating. We take a strength-based approach. Looking backward is a waste of time.”

“It’s an honor that parents are so comfortable with us,” says Milly.

“If the community doesn’t trust you, it’s not going to work,” Tom Stokes agrees.

The Stars Align
As I wander through the building, it strikes me how people from different companies and institutions, with differing roles, backgrounds and skill sets all work together seamlessly in common cause. The Boys & Girls Clubs and EMPath pay a fee to help defray costs and employ their own staffs, but as Pam says, “They have been fabulous partners, and everyone feels they are working for the same organization.”

“The security guards know all the kids and can tell if something is wrong. They work closely with the police and do reports for the property managers and the center staff,” says Tom.

“And the commitment of the maintenance staff to the children and the center permeates everything,” Pam adds.

“It’s wonderful the way the staff talks about the kids and loves watching them grow,” Lauretta comments.

“The stars just align here in mutual respect,” Pam says.

“The passion and attention to detail of people who work here is organic,” Joe Hassell tells me. “Everyone knows everyone’s story.” Hassell is a local developer who got involved with Tierney by chance and is now an active board member. “It was something I’d heard about in passing. A neighbor said, ‘I know you like to help out in the community.’ I called, they were doing their Letters to Santa program and I dropped off 40 gifts.”

That was only the beginning for Joe, hooked by what he experienced at Tierney. “There’s an energy here unlike any charity or anything else I’ve been associated with. It’s so pure and so wonderful to see what happens with every bit of what the staff can do with everything they’re given, to change people’s lives. It’s changed my life infinitely for the better. The set of skills that I use for work is so much better [employed] here.” He produced a video about the center entitled, “Higher Love, Higher Learning.”

“I wanted people to feel the way I did, to see what this place is really about. Seeing the fruits of your labor is very gratifying as the kids grow up. We have to have Tierney continue, grow and expand however we can.”

A Necessary Component
Given Tierney’s impact—the safe haven, recreational and learning environment and opportunity for personal growth it offers children, and the family support, professional guidance and referral services it provides to adults and resources seniors—it seems obvious and axiomatic that such a center should be at the heart of every affordable community. If secure housing is the starting point for all other elements of personal and family stability, a facility, like Tierney is the means to make those elements real and permanent.

And yet, this is one of the most difficult types of facilities to keep going. There are numerous charitable organizations competing for support in areas like this, and few foundations or grant-givers want to pay for operating expenses. Tierney needs to raise between $200,000 and $300,000 per year for all its programs. As it is, the Boston Housing Authority and Beacon set aside financial resources to help defray operating costs during this start-up period, and Beacon pays for many of the expenses out of its own corporate pocket and foundation, including memberships and supplies for an entire Girl Scout troop and providing in-kind contributions. EMPath already needs more space.

“There are AA meetings on Thursdays, English-as-a-Second-Language classes just came to an end and we want to get back to them, along with HiSET [high school equivalency program],” says Lauretta.

“People are looking for magic answers,” Pam declares. “We’re addressing the whole family and the community.Caring, wraparound services are what works, but it’s expensive. If the city wants job creation without the kind of wraparound services we’re talking about, it’s not going to happen.”

Perhaps Tom best sums up the proposition: “You have to consider the consequences and cost-efficiency versus not having this resource.”

Standing in front of the Anne M. Lynch Homes named for his mother, Democratic Representative Steven Lynch, who grew up at Old Colony, asserted, “There are basic investments we should be making now to ensure that future generations have the opportunity to grow up in a stable, safe and decent place.”

Witnessing the Joseph M. Tierney Learning Center in action, I can’t think of a more basic investment, nor a worthier, more cost-effective cause, and I hope I’ve helped tell the story.

Story Contact:
Tom Stokes