The Free Philosophy Project: Parents in shelter gather together for philosophical discussions.

The Free Philosophy Project: Parents in shelter gather together for philosophical discussions

Every Tuesday evening of the school year at Columbia House, you will find a group of parents seated around a kitchen table, enjoying snacks and one another’s company. While the kids are busy playing with Horizons for Homeless Children’s PALs, the parents are busy having philosophical discussions posing questions such as: What defines a miracle? How does our culture influence definitions of beauty? What value does love bring to our lives? This group discussion is led by Maité Cruz Tleugabulova, a PhD candidate of philosophy from Boston University and a member of the Free Philosophy Project.

The Free Philosophy Project began as an experiment in 2015 when Clarinda Blais, then an undergraduate student at BU, began sharing her notes at the Women’s Lunch Place and St. Francis House. The Free Philosophy Project became a formal organization in 2016, spanning across 10 different shelters in the Greater Boston area, bringing weekly philosophical discussions to shelter residents. The partnership between Hildebrand and the Free Philosophy Project officially began in January 2018 and will continue to run according to the academic calendar with a fall and spring session.

The Free Philosophy Project aims to “share philosophy with those who may not otherwise have access to it.” Every week our families come together to engage in intellectual discussion, increasing their critical thinking skills and allowing them the space to share their thoughts based on their lived experiences. The effects of these conversations are clear for both Maité, as a student, and for the families participating.

Maité studies Philosophy and teaches courses at Boston University, and she brings some of the questions from her class into the weekly discussion. The Free Philosophy Project allows Maité to learn about philosophy from folks of different walks of life. She says “it’s nice to see people coming to philosophy from a different place and gets them to see the issues in a real way. It’s not abstract, it’s connecting ideas to their lives.” The participants of the project feel similarly. One resident, Victoria, has been attending the weekly discussion for the past two months and looks forward to how each weekly meeting changes her perspective. She says, “It teaches you different ways to think about things and look at things in life, which helps with everything in general. The ‘Happiness’ discussion was a good one and it’s been a positive experience.”

Some families were skeptical at first, hesitantly joining the discussion group then being pleasantly surprised by taking a lot away from the experience. One such resident, Leah recalls, “At first I wasn’t going to do it but it’s helping me see the big picture and think more in depth about happiness. We can be honest about ourselves and not be judged.”

Another resident, Illiana, who has attended the weekly discussion groups since it began, has seen a change in herself since starting the group. “They opened my mind to thoughts I had but couldn’t put into words. My way of thinking is different. I find myself thinking in depth more often.”

Hildebrand offers a variety of training and work readiness programs and life skill development programs. While housing clinics and budgeting workshops are beneficial in breaking down barriers to housing, it’s important to us that we provide opportunities for parents to reflect on topics and ideas beyond their current situation. Another such workshop series hosted annually is The Parenting Journey.

The Free Philosophy Project is now an integral part of our program offerings and is particularly unique. It’s driven by the experiences of our families and provides them an opportunity to highlight their experiences and connect them to larger concepts. We are excited to continue this partnership and look forward to the many philosophical discussions to be had at Columbia, and expanding it for our families in Dorchester this fall.

An African-American Man and South Asian-American man smiling for the camera with people and the Hildebrand logo visible in background.

Coming Home: A Client Success

In October, we hosted our first Open House at our administrative office here in Cambridge. We were fortunate enough to have a former client come and speak about his experience. Humbled by his experience Ibrahim had given a relatively short summary of his experience before going on to explain the long-lasting affects the circumstances that led him to Hildebrand continues to have on him and his family. In short, he escaped war-torn Sudan and seven years later is now a proud homeowner, here in Massachusetts. Read his story below:

Ibrahim and his family escaped war-torn Sudan as political refugees in 2010. They faced the reality that children were being shot in the streets or kidnapped to join the army, and knew they had to seek refuge elsewhere. Ibrahim had been sent to prison after refusing to join the army and participate in the mass genocide that was taking place.

His family realized that they had to leave Sudan in order to survive. Ibrahim shared with us that the decision to leave was not easy, but he realized “this is war and you must leave everything to survive war – even your clothes.”

Forced to flee the country where he worked as an architect the family walked through the night in order to cross the border into Egypt undetected. They spent time in refugee camps in there, before coming to Boston, where they didn’t know anyone. His wife gave birth to their third child in one of those refugee camps, it’s a miracle they both survived with little access to medical supplies. His family lived in a hotel for seven months before coming to Hildebrand in 2011.

The unit they had lived in before coming to us was unhealthy for his three children, exacerbating their asthma and requiring multiple visits to the doctors and emergency rooms. They came to Hildebrand to preserve their lives. Ibrahim found a job at Logan Airport, and he and his wife attended college while living here.

While at Hildebrand his family received their green cards, and he was excited to apply for citizenship because he came to the United States for the opportunities the country provided, to build a better life, and a better future. Ibrahim and his family moved out of shelter in 2012. For many years, Ibrahim worked three jobs to save money and support their growing family while his wife endured heart surgery while attending school to become a teacher.

Despite all they had faced, this family has continued to strive and persevere and in the summer of 2017, Ibrahim and his wife purchased their own home in Sharon, MA! During our discussion about their struggles Ibrahim shared with us his love for his country and the people that helped to support them. “We are so happy to be here. We love America and we are American now. As a family we accept everyone and love all traditions. We live and die for America.”

The trauma of their experiences still affects them, but Ibrahim and his family continue to thrive in their life here in America.

Ibrahim is pictured right above with his former case manager, Marc Jean-Jacques.

African-American mother and father with their two children ages approximately 8 and 10.

A Journey Home: One Family’s Success

Before entering shelter, Esther, Wilson, and their two children, Farah and Samuel* came to Boston in the wake of the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. They lived comfortably in Haiti; Wilson was an engineer and they owned their own home. After a forced relocation, they were offered housing in a couple of friends’ apartment. Esther and Wilson both had temporary jobs at a candy factory, but were unable to live off this pay alone. Eventually, the overcrowded apartment made for a difficult living situation and their friends asked them to leave.

During their first few nights of homelessness, the family slept in their church, and were soon placed in a hotel in Belmont through the Department of Community and Housing Development. Although they were safe, this living arrangement proved challenging. All four members of the family were living in one room that lacked a kitchen, forcing them to eat costly, less nutritious take-out food daily. Another drawback was the location; the children were enrolled in Boston public schools and transportation to and from Belmont was inconsistent and hard to navigate, especially since neither Esther nor Wilson spoke English fluently. The final straw came when Farah, then 8, had an allergic reaction to a chemical used to clean the carpets.

In January 2014, one of Hildebrand’s emergency shelter scattered sites opened, and the family was transferred into a fully equipped apartment in Dorchester. Reflecting on her experiences, Esther called it “two completely different things.” She and her family were so happy with their new space because it provided more freedom being closer to public transportation and their children’s school. She noted, “It was closer to church, easier to find employment, and closer to friends and family.” Esther was especially happy to have a kitchen to prepare homemade meals for her family. “Living in Dorchester made a big difference,” said Wilson.

While at Hildebrand, Wilson found stable employment as a prep-cook, working 35 hours per week. In September 2015, the family received a section 8 voucher and applied to live in our newest unit of permanent, subsidized housing on Norfolk Street, which was acquired in July of 1998 and provided emergency shelter to families experiencing homelessness there until it was converted into affordable housing in 2015. Esther and Wilson were interviewed and selected to be the first family to move into Norfolk Street this past November.

Living in permanent housing allows their children to participate in school sponsored activities like basketball and dance. Esther said her children love their new home “because they have their own rooms.” Currently, Esther is enrolled in an English as a Second Language course at Roxbury Madison Park School, and is eager to have better access to future employment.

In five years, they hope to be even more financially secure. Wilson’s goal is “to be able to support our children going to school [for higher education] and to [be able to] support themselves.” When asked what advice they would give to a new family joining Hildebrand, Esther asserted, “Follow the social workers lead.” Wilson echoed that sentiment saying follow their guidance and you’ll find success.

* Names changed to maintain the client’s confidentiality

Mosaic that spells "Home" and is shaped like a doormat.

Waking from the Nightmare to a Dream Come True

Lana* was laid off in March of 2015 and became homeless in May. Before coming to Hildebrand, Lana, her husband, and their daughter were placed in Emergency Assistance shelter in Central Massachusetts. “I tried to be optimistic, I wanted to follow the rules, and to go in prepared,” she said, having meticulously read rules in order to comply with the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Unfortunately, however, her experience at her first shelter was extremely difficult and morally degrading.

She was placed into a scattered site apartment in a complex with other families in either scattered site or subsidized housing. “To be in a scattered site, you have to be motivated and disciplined,” Lana confessed. And she is extremely disciplined. Before entering shelter, she was always the provider of her family. She worked hard, so that her family could receive health care benefits and the like. This mindset had not changed for her. She would go out to workshops or trainings or in search of employment, to be sure she was in compliance as well as give her family the best chance to get out of shelter and into permanent housing.

Unfortunately, because of a lack of disciplined staff, she was targeted for a bad mother. They had no sign-in sheets and neglected to perform checks on the apartments regularly, which are both required by DHCD. While she was out trying to find ways to care for her family, her husband and others in her complex became complacent. She was reported on by the staff because at times they could not find her or claimed she was not following the rules. Had they kept a sign-in sheet they would have been aware of her comings and goings. “Once they came to check on me and asked me where I had been, and I told them ‘I’ve been here for two days to taking care of my sick daughter,’” she recalled, “nothing was in the system, it was a nightmare and I am really happy to be here [at Hildebrand].” The staff would threaten her and even got her daughter taken away from her, terminated her from the shelter, and got her food stamps taken away from her.

All the while, Lana discovered that she was pregnant. She was living out of her car, starving, estranged from her husband, and missing her daughter. But Lana is a fighter, and she appealed her termination, which led her to Hildebrand. She come to us on September 18th.

“I can’t pinpoint what it is…if it wasn’t for Hildebrand it could have gone the wrong way.”

She had 5 different case managers at the shelter in Central Mass, but here she was placed in congregate with Marc and a house full of residential assistants who are always willing to sit down and help. “If you could see my rehousing plan now compared to the one I had before, it does not even compare,” she noted. “I think it was my second day here, I was so happy, I was having eggs and it had been like 3.5 months since I’d had any.” People take for granted having the ability to prepare and eat food.

“It was a miracle he survived,” Lana said of her unborn son.

Every day at Hildebrand she continued to do everything she could to get permanent housing and a job. She hasn’t had a moment to sit back and watch a movie because she is out there doing workshops and trainings, going on job interviewing, and apartment hunting. Fortunately, she found permanent housing and moved into her apartment in Maynard on December 1st. She chose Maynard so she could be closer to her mother. “My mom said she’d help when the baby comes in February, so that I can I work,” she said, she has a difficult time being idle.

Advice for a family moving into shelter: “Take it all in, absorb it – one day at a time. And if you do all the right things, follow the rules, the right things will come.”

*name has been changed for confidentiality

A woman with her three small children.

A Guide for the Journey Home

Before coming to Hildebrand, Arianne* was living in the Days Inn Hotel in Methuen with four of her children. She made the choice to transfer to Hildebrand because she knew the environment was not good for her children. Five people living in the same room makes for a stressful living situation.

“At first, [my children] had a lot of questions, ‘why weren’t we living in a house?’ – they started acting up,” Arianne said of her time in Methuen. When she first came to Hildebrand she was “excited because my kids felt like they were in a home.” At the Days Inn, Arianne and her children lived in one space, without privacy. At Hildebrand, they moved into scattered site shelter, which is an apartment with a fully equipped kitchen and separate bedrooms for mother and children. “Even though we were in shelter,” she said, “to my kids, it was a home.”

When she came to Hildebrand in January of 2014, she said, “I was completely lost, lost apartment, lost job, lost car – I thought everything was lost. Deborah helped provide motivation, more organization. In Methuen, I was just there – I had no guide. When you become homeless, you don’t know what to expect.” In the 20 months Arianne and her family spent with us, she gave birth to her fifth child, went back to school for cosmetology (and finished!), and received section 8 housing.

On her advice to new families entering Hildebrand, she said, “Appreciate it, follow the rules, let the social workers guide you, follow directions to get where you want to. It’s easy – at first I was lost – Hildebrand made such a huge impact.”

Arianne moved into her new apartment in Roslindale on October 1st of this year.

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Hildebrand Family Self-Help Center, Inc. partners with families experiencing homelessness. We provide shelter, permanent housing, work readiness programs, and life skill development. We restore hope and build brighter futures.