By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – Christina Densmore remembers Sanctuary City well: 70 to 80 tents set up first on the grounds of St. Michael’s Cathedral on May 13, 2004, that housed up to 500 homeless people.
Densmore, who recently completed her bachelor’s degree at Westfield State University, was one of the speakers at a 10th anniversary observation conducted on the lawn of St. Michael’s on May 13.
She said before the rally there is still a lack of shelter and housing space for homeless people as evidenced by the people who are living in motels paid for by the state.
When Michaelann Bewsee of Arise for Social Justice noted that about 4,000 people are being housed in motels and state officials have denied another 4,000 people benefits, some of the people gathered there, replied “Shame! Shame!”
About 50 people gathered for the event, sponsored by Arise.
Densmore related how the deaths of two homeless men, the latter of which frozen to death on the steps of City Hall in 2003 brought the issue of homelessness to the forefront.
Densmore said that homeless people feared going to the Friends of the Homeless Shelter on Worthington Street. The closing of the Warming Place, another shelter on Mother’s Day, 2004, was the motivation for Densmore and other organizers to begin camping on the lawn of St. Michael’s.
“If they’re not going to help us, we’re going to do something,” Densmore recalled.
The homeless people in the tent city stayed on the grounds of St. Michael’s for three months and then moved to the parking lot of the then headquarters of Open Pantry Community services at the corner of State and School streets for another three months.
Joe Cotton was also a resident and said, “Everybody came together in unity.”
He added, “It wasn’t about color, it was about everyone trying to find a place to live. We still need more apartments. We still need more houses.”
Cotton, like others, believes city officials should use vacant homes to house the homeless.
“They have all of them abandoned buildings, abandoned apartments. Why don’t they turn them over now?” Cotton asked.
Both Densmore and Cotton are no longer homeless.
Bewsee said, that according to an email she received from Springfield Housing Director Geraldine McCafferty, the city’s efforts aimed at reducing homelessness have resulted in 274 people being placed in housing with supportive services.
“That’s 27 people a year,” Bewsee said. She added, “Nobody asks us, poor people, homeless people what the solutions are.”
Asked about the legacy of Sanctuary City, Densmore noted that when she was homeless she never met any service providers until she was living in Sanctuary City.
“It got us visible. If you’re invisible you can be easily ignored,” she said.