A few months removed from staying at a local homeless shelter, Tity Bangura ticks off what she likes about her apartment: the walk-in closet in her bedroom, the bathroom, which she calls “spacious,” the kitchen where she can make her signature dish of fufu and okra.
“I’ve never been in a place like this,” said Bangura, 66, whose first name is pronounced “tee-tee.”
The “place” is Hearth at Four Corners, a development completed in June that is held up as a success story amid Boston’s ongoing and seemingly intractable housing crisis.
As one of its 59 residents, Bangura, a retired health care aide who emigrated from Sierra Leone 40 years ago, represents a happy ending for the unhoused in a city that ranks among the most expensive places to live in the country.
She moved in on July 1, following a 2½-year period of homelessness, during which she lived at the Pine Street Inn. Her new home has 54 units, eight of which are set aside for the formerly homeless, like Bangura. Eleven others are reserved for referrals from the state Department of Mental Health, while the rest are pegged at various levels of income-based affordability. The entire building, located in Dorchester’s Four Corners neighborhood, is for residents age 62 years and older.
Bangura’s story also underscores how financial challenges can push people onto the street.
She landed at Pine Street after her landlord kicked her out of a basement apartment in Hyde Park. Money had been tight since she lost her job in 2014 as a nurse’s aide at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she had worked for more than a decade, she said.
After Bangura was evicted, she had nowhere to go. She called a housing advocate, who suggested Pine Street. There, she weathered the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. She would wake up at 5 a.m., without an alarm, to pray for peace and give thanks, she recalled. During the day, when people had to leave the shelter, Bangura sometimes would hang out at South Station and make phone calls. She never had to spend a night on the streets, she said.
She applied to a lot of places for housing, she said; there was a lot of paperwork. The search was complicated by the pandemic.
Eventually, Bangura was referred to Hearth through HomeStart, a local organization that helps the homeless find housing. A state voucher program subsidizes Bangura’s rent, and she pays 30 percent of her monthly income to live here. She considers the 571-square-foot space to be roomy; it beats sleeping in the same room as five other people at the shelter. Here, she has her own space.
It’s a type of housing that Boston desperately needs more of, according to local experts and leaders.
“It’s a very important project,” said Sheila Dillon, the city’s housing chief. “I think the development was very successful.”
More than 5,000 senior households in the city are rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent. To address that need, Dillon said, the city continues to work on building a better pipeline of senior affordable housing. (There are 258 units of affordable senior housing currently under construction in Boston, and another 364 such units in various stages of planning.) The city has just shy of 13,000 income-restricted units for seniors, but, Dillon noted, “It’s not enough.”
“The idea that any senior is rent-burdened is . . . unacceptable,” she said.
Meanwhile, Boston’s homelessness problem persists. On the same day Bangura spoke this week, there were still more than two dozen tents near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the heart of the opioid crisis known as Mass. and Cass. Scores of people were weathering temperatures that dipped into the 30s and 20s at night in the encampment.
Earlier this year, a homeless census found that more than 4,200 people were unhoused in Boston, which represented a 25 percent decrease from the previous year.
Dillon said about 600 units that would provide supportive housing for the homeless are currently planned in the city. The various projects are in different phases: some are beginning construction this year, others next year.
Mayor Michelle Wu said recently that it was a top priority of her administration to get “a roof over every person’s head to advance dignity and opportunity.”
“We will continue to grow our investments in safe, supportive housing to build a foundation of stability for all our residents,” said Wu.
At the Pine Street Inn, where Bangura found shelter for two-plus years, president and executive director Lyndia Downie said people who are chronically homeless — those who have been homeless for more than a year — typically take priority on the housing lists.
About a fifth of the people that Pine Street shelters during the course of the year are considered to be chronically homeless, while 30 percent usually depart within 30 days.
“Folks move out of homelessness, and that story doesn’t get covered enough,” she said.
People who are chronically homeless, she said, need a layer of support to help them hold onto their housing. That could mean help with anything from budgeting to navigating health benefits to employment opportunity to finding mental health services to teaching someone how to run a washing machine. At the Dorchester building where Bangura lives, there is a resident services coordinator who assesses needs of residents and connects them to necessary care.
Pine Street currently has 450 beds; the shelter just added more than 40 anticipating need would rise given the incoming winter. The shelter is mostly full, though Downie said “we have the occasional open bed.” In recent years the percentage of the total homeless population that have slept on the streets is less than 3 percent, a low figure for a major American city.
Greater Boston has an expensive housing market with a low vacancy rate. While the pandemic affected some rents, “They did not go down at the bottom at all. If anything, they’re going up,” said Downie.
“I wish we had a supply of really cheap housing so people didn’t have to come into shelters,” she said.
Sitting in her new place, Bangura talked about her life’s journey from west Africa to Boston. She lost two sons in childbirth and almost died herself from pregnancy complications in Sierra Leone. Surviving that experience, she said, cemented her faith in God, a faith that remains a central part of her life. She listed reading the Bible as one of her favorite activities; she also enjoys a daily walk, shopping for clothes, and watching “Dancing with the Stars.”
The world is a tough place, Bangura conceded, but she is not interested in dwelling on the negatives.
“You don’t have to keep those things inside that will kill you,” she said. “You have to let it go.”
Bangura moved to Boston at 26, obtaining a visa through her brother who already lived in America. She worked at Sears and then became a nurse’s assistant at a Jewish nursing home in Forest Hills, then a nursing home in Malden, before landing a job at the intensive care unit at MGH, where she worked for 11 years. She was a caretaker for her mother for a time and raised her daughter as a single mom, which meant she could not go to school and get a degree, which she believes put a ceiling on her career.
Now, her daughter is almost 40 and Bangura has two teenage grandchildren, all of whom live in Rhode Island. She visits them when she can. On the same day she received word she secured housing this year, her daughter graduated from college, a proud moment for Bangura.
The pandemic means there will be no large, banquet-style Thanksgiving feast at this building. Residents instead will have individual meals — turkey, stuffing, pie — delivered to their units. Bangura is unfazed.
The recent years have been marked by loss and tribulations. Both her parents died in the last three years. One of her brothers passed away while she was staying at Pine Street. Still, Bangura is relentlessly positive, an attribute for which she says her sister sometimes chides her.
“I’m so thankful for this,” she said, seated on a couch in her apartment. “What God has done for me.”