St. Mary’s Center testimony on an Equitable Recovery for Boston

Testimony from Alexis Steel June 29, 2020

I wanted to thank Senator Nick Collins for inviting me to testify on behalf of St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children. Thank you to the Senator and Representative Chynah Tyler for chairing and hosting this valuable listening session. And congratulations on your new baby girl, Senator. 

Thank you to Representative Dan Hunt and Senator Collins for representing St. Mary’s Center on Beacon Hill and at the State House. We are extremely grateful for your leadership and dedication to St. Mary’s year after year.  

I have the privilege and honor of serving as the Chief Operating Officer of St. Mary’s Center and as their current leader. As one of the largest family shelters in Boston, the vast majority of the 500 women and children St. Mary’s Center serves each year have long suffered significant hardship. Apart from chronic homelessness, many have been physically, sexually, and emotionally abused and have known no other life outside this pain and trauma.   

Through our six innovative programs and related partnerships, we work with each family to assess their unique needs. St. Mary’s Center  provides the specific supportive services and training needed to help propel the women and families towards their personal goals and a sustainable future where they can not only survive independently but thrive.  

The main campus of St. Mary’s Center sits on the former site of St. Margaret’s Hospital on Jones Hill in Dorchester, one of the poorest and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the City of Boston. Most of the women and children served by St. Mary’s Center are African American or Latinx, from Boston’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, the majority of whom are homeless or on the verge of homelessness. St. Mary’s residents also include pregnant teens and teen mothers, many of whom are in the custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), non-English speaking immigrants, and others who have been subject to human trafficking.   

With the social, economic, and political climate over the last few months, it is beyond an understatement to say that our population has been deeply impacted, and their paths forward stalled or retreating.  

Within St. Mary’s Center alone, we have had over 30% of our workforce impacted by COVID, with many of my employees losing loved ones to the virus. We’ve had isolation units and safe passes within the community for our families- doing our best to support our families with a blend of in -person and virtual  while balancing the reality that 77% of our employees are minorities including 55% of my employees are African American.  Where our agency’s reality is that the families we live and breathe for each and every day at this place of solace and hope, are highlighted by coveted news such as the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and NBC as being those most impacted by this virus. CDC has reported on June 25th “that non-Hispanic black and African Americans have a rate of approximately 5 times that of a non-Hispanic white persons.” 

Here is where I pause to say none of this is new to us. This is where the uniqueness of our families and their stories stops- and the harsh reality comes to light of the inequities these families try to surpass are much of the same due to a historic system. To quote the vice president and chief equity and inclusion officer at Massachusetts General Hospital.  “This pandemic has really unearthed — shone a real bright light on — the ways these disparities should not be accepted and are not tolerable.” 

Research such as the intrinsic link between race and homelessness with African Americans comprising 40% of the homeless population but only 13% of the general population;1 The link between hunger, homelessness, and health inequities is well documented. Beyond this, our families at St. Mary’s’ Center know all too well the stark  inequalities within the education and employment systems within our communities, being part of the 179K African American and Latinx children in Massachusetts where no parent has full-time or year-round employment.  

What COVID-19  has taught us is that we can no longer ignore disparities in health care and education for the population served at St. Mary’s Center. The populations we serve, being 250 families on campus at all times, are considered the most vulnerable in our Boston Community, and those we continue to rally with for social justice and equity. They are those  in our society that have not been recognized with their insurmountable hurdles that we have placed along their road to success and sustainability. We need to make education, employment, and healthcare reform for women on the margins of society a priority as they are vital in changing the trajectory of the vulnerable populations we serve to protect. This is why our organization still stands, 27 years in, with 100% of our participants being from low-income and homelessness, and close to 90% of our families being minorities.  

Erasing the devastation of cyclical poverty and homelessness in women and children has long been at the core of St. Mary’s Center and our vision of tackling the root causes is bold and purposeful.  We look forward to standing with our community to push for equitable recovery in Boston and continue to be a leader on racial and economic justice. We must do better, we will do better and we will continue to stand with and by minority mothers and children.  

I wanted to thank Senator Nick Collins again for inviting me to testify on behalf of St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children and thank you and Representative Chynah Tyler for chairing and hosting this listening session.  Thank you to Representative Dan Hunt and Senator Collins for your listening and commitment to our organization and our mission that has been so inspiring.

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