GREENFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS — Finally spotting a place that he could afford to rent, Steven “Skip” Sommer headed over to view the apartment.
“The first thing out of the guy’s mouth was, ‘Were you ever convicted of a felony?’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, I was.’ I said, ‘I do have a CORI (criminal record) and it’s kind of extensive, but this is what I do today.’ I showed him the letters from all the different agencies. And he was like, ‘Yeah, whatever, just put the application in the box.’ I knew that was a dead issue with just the way he responded to me,” Sommer said.
Sommer most recently served time for a crime he says he didn’t commit, stealing nearly $9,000 worth of coins during a break-in at Whitney Hill Antiques in 2014. He says he pleaded guilty in a deal – spending 2½ years in the Franklin County House of Correction, rather than taking his chances with a trial and up to 15 years.
“If I ended up doing 15 years, my daughter is wondering if she’ll ever see me again,” Sommer said about his daughter who’s now 7 years old.
After getting out of jail, Sommer found himself at a halfway house in Orange for addiction. He’s now three years sober. Transitioning out of the halfway house, though, has been particularly challenging for Sommer, who is active in the recovery community and can often be seen at events and meetings held by the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin.
He found himself in a Catch 22. He wanted to get his own apartment so that he could regain custody of his daughter, who currently lives in Chicago with her grandmother, he said. He couldn’t apply for custody until he got his own apartment, but he couldn’t get the apartment with federal and state financial “family” assistance unless he had his daughter with him.
And by March, after driving his minivan to Chicago trying to sort out plans for custody, he came back to find out he was no longer allowed to stay at the Orange House, run by ServiceNet. He said he was told he wasn’t in need of their services anymore.
Now couch-surfing, Sommer found an additional challenge: He wanted to find full-time employment, but didn’t know what to write down for his home address.
“My income is $766 now, but would go up to $850,” with pending increases from Social Security, he said. “There’s no affordable housing out here, because usually rents are $750 to $800. That would leave me nothing for utilities.”
He said he eats with his $99 a month of food stamps, and since becoming homeless, picking up groceries at a food pantry doesn’t do him much good with nowhere to store the perishables and nowhere to cook any of it.
He became reliant on free community meals, of which there are several a week in the county, sponsored by local churches and charitable organizations.
Applying to some of the subsidized housing complexes in town, like Leyden Woods, is fruitless to him, because, “My understanding from talking to other people that all these places got lists, like forget about it. They’re outrageous because of so much homelessness. People are trying to get everywhere.”
Looking at another apartment, one in Orange where rents tend to be cheaper but resources for recovery tend to be more scattered than in Greenfield, Sommer ran into a dead-end for another possible place.
Despite having money for first and last months rent and security deposit, through the state’s Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, the landlord didn’t think he could make the $500 rent.
“He told me I don’t make enough money. Like, really?” Sommer said. “What am I going to do? Look for a job? What am I going to put down on an application? Homeless? I don’t lie no more. It’s not a part of my recovery. I got to be truthfully honest at all times, regardless of what it is. So when people ask me questions, I’m honest with them. I don’t sugarcoat it. I’m straight up honest with them because that’s a big part of my recovery. It just seems to haunt me now. My past is haunting me.”
“They talk about (Gov.) Charles Baker spends billions of dollars on homelessness. Where? We sure ain’t seeing it down here, that’s for sure,” Sommer said. “Look at Athol and Orange: They don’t even got a shelter out there.”
“It feels like they’re keeping everything in the Boston area,” Sommer continued. “There’s a lot of need out there, too. But spread it out here some. There’s a need out here. It’s like a forgotten town when it comes to government.”
The Massachusetts affordable housing bill may lead to a small handful of single room occupancy apartments in the former Clinical & Support Options building on High Street.
State money might also make it possible for up to 20 new apartments aimed for different income levels on Deerfield Street.
The winter is coming, and Sommer is keenly aware. His girlfriend may find a place with her child soon, and he says the plan would be to move in together. Part of the question is the equation: Would his additional income throw off eligibility for federal benefits or cause the rent to jump too much?
He has a more likely scenario.
“You know what? I look at it like this: What could be the worst thing that can happen? I freeze to death in my van. So what? Maybe that’ll make a statement to these people about the homelessness situation. Maybe they’ll really take a look at it, brother,” Sommer said. “A friend said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be really cold…’ It is going to be what it is, man. What am I going to do? What am I supposed to do?”
Sommer has thought about moving to Vermont, too. He often hears about how programs are working better there than here, which may be a case of the grass is greener, but it’s “tempting,” he said, because there might be less stigma around his past and what’s he trying to work toward.
“The whole thing is I did all this workout here to better my community, the places I associate with — I know everybody out here, “Sommer said. “People knew me from the past. They see me today and they know I’m a whole different person. People look up to me because they know I changed so much to the point they don’t even believe it. Hopefully it gives them hope they can change, too.”
By: Joshua Solomon
Published: December 4, 2018