Boston Nonprofit Steadfast Amid Abrupt Relocations

Learn how the nonprofit group Friends of Boston’s Homeless maintained job-training and other services when faced with unforeseen challenges.

Friends of Boston’s Homeless, which supports a number of city-run programs, in a sense faced a struggle with homelessness itself. The abrupt October 2014 closing of the only bridge to Boston Harbor’s Long Island—the site of an emergency shelter, transitional housing, and a variety of support services—left the organization scrambling to find new locations to house several of its programs.

The bridge, which had been slated to undergo major repairs, was unexpectedly condemned, and the island evacuated in 4.5 hours, with people leaving the shelters with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

“It was a disaster situation,” says Friends’ Executive Director Mariann Bucina Roca. “You’re talking about 700 people who were already vulnerable and homeless, many of whom are transitioning and were on this path of moving on to different kinds of lives—everything was disrupted.”

The Role of Friends of Boston’s Homeless

Friends of Boston’s Homeless was founded in 1987 and, according to Bucina Roca, functions in a capacity similar to that of a parent-teacher organization or a friends of the library group. It raises funds and awareness for a number of programs run by the City of Boston’s Homeless Services Bureau, a division of the Boston Public Health Commission. Supporting a handful of city emergency shelters, Friends also operates permanent affordable housing in nearby Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. But the organization’s main focus is the city’s programs and their funding.

“Our role is to fill in those crucial gaps in funding that city, state, and federal programs often don’t have the means to cover,” says Bucina Roca. “When you think about people coming from all directions to solve a problem, you have the public sector with their ability and their knowledge and their funds, and then you have the private sector, and that brings a different skill set to an issue, a different perspective. And what we’re trying to do—in conjunction with the public sector—is tackle this issue of homelessness and end it for people.”

Although they hold a couple of annual fundraisers, most of their money comes from individual donors—Friends’ “housewarming registry” offers a unique twist on the standard ask—and from corporate and foundation grants. The funds support the heart of Friends’ work: its three vocational programs.

Vocational Programs

Serving Ourselves is Friends’ job training and employment program. Participants may elect to be trained in administrative, culinary arts and food service, commercial laundry, buildings and grounds maintenance, delivery, or other trades. Serving Ourselves has a high rate of success, with 60% of program graduates finding permanent competitive employment and more than 70% securing permanent housing.

The Work Experience Program teaches individuals the basics of employment: teamwork and a strong work ethic. Many have gone on to full-time jobs at area businesses. The Program was based on Long Island, where participants lived in their own dormitories and had a place to store their belongings, luxuries for those who are experiencing homelessness and struggling with substance use. Despite the physical disruption to the program, it’s still functioning, says Bucina Roca.

Finally, the Employment Services Program takes over where Serving Ourselves and the Work Experience Program leave off, guiding participants though the entire employment process, coaching them in resume and cover letter writing, job search techniques, and business etiquette. Volunteers conduct mock interviews and give tips on how to dress in the workplace

“It’s things many of us take for granted,” says Bucina Roca, “but really, who doesn’t need a job coach?”

The Race to Relocate

Friends of Boston’s Homeless and service providers with facilities on the island—many of which are supported by the organization—have been racing to relocate their programs. Bucina Roca says the island’s closure “knocked [Friends] off track” and that they’ve been operating as more of a disaster relief organization in some respects. But at the same time, she sees this as an opportunity. Accessing programs on Long Island had its challenges, especially for those who were looking at apartments and going to meetings and job interviews in the city, attending classes at one of the local community colleges or UMass Boston, and generally trying to regain some measure of independence.

“There’s some opportunity here to connect with the community and with employers in the city in a better way, to hire people who are going to graduate from the program and build better relationships with employers who understand the issue and the people better,” says Bucina Roca. “And understanding is the first step to solving anything and to getting over stereotypes.”

The Farm @ Long Island was another victim of the bridge closure. This 2.5-acre certified organic farm run by Friends of Boston’s Homeless produces 25,000 pounds of produce annually, in addition to fresh eggs, largely for the 800 people served on a daily basis by the Long Island Shelter’s kitchen. The farm also offered community supported agriculture shares at farmers’ markets and in Boston neighborhoods with limited access to fresh foods, while giving people experiencing homelessness the chance to learn job-readiness skills and work there for pay. It’s the one component that might not be resurrected, says Bucina Roca, though she hasn’t given up on it yet.

This article was originally published to highlight the April 2015 theme of Employment.

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Sarah Zobel
Last Updated: 05/09/2019