Finding Her Voice

Laura Gillis caught up with Amy Grassette to talk about her experience of being homeless, the impact that had on her family, and how she managed to work through the adversity to stabilized her and her family's lives.

Amy Grassette is a busy woman. She works full-time at the Family Health Center (FHC) in Worcester, Massachusetts and volunteered this past year to run the agency’s United Way campaign. She is also conducting research with faculty at the University of Massachusetts and is on the Executive Committee of a national advisory board. Married and the mother of two teenage sons, her life reflects the experience of many Americans in the prime of life who are actively engaged in their work and community, and raising children. Her lived experience also includes being homeless for several years. “Being homeless is a humbling experience,” she says, “yet it was during those years that I found my voice.”

It began when her husband William fell from a ladder while installing insulation, severely injuring his knee. With her husband unable to work, Amy began to provide childcare in their home. Soon William began working again as a driver for Groton Shuttle, taking people to and from the Boston airport. By August 2001, the Grassettes had acquired Groton Shuttle and were running it themselves. It seemed only a matter of time until they would be back on their feet again. Then September 11th happened, air travel came to a standstill, and there was virtually no demand for an airport shuttle company. They had to lay off drivers and sell their vehicles. Eventually, they lost the company.

When William and Amy couldn’t pay their rent, they were forced to leave their apartment and stay temporarily with Amy's mother and stepfather. The family had applied for Section 8 housing, were number nine on the waiting list, so they assumed their stay with Amy's mother would be brief. Then came a freeze on Section 8 funding, and two years later they were still on the waiting list. When Amy’s mother and stepfather divorced, the Grassettes were left with no place to live. They were homeless.

The family applied for emergency shelter through the city of Worcester and they were put in a motel for three months. They received food stamps but had no way to cook in the motel room. “We ended up going through our food stamps faster,” recalls Amy. She humbled herself and went to MacDonald’s to ask for food: “They gave me dinner for my family and I was surprised at how nice people were to me.” After three more months, they found themselves in a family shelter. The shelter staff referred the Grassettes to the Family Health Center in Worcester, where the family received primary health care and assistance with medications and other supports through the Health Care for the Homeless project.

In December 2003, they moved into an apartment. “We didn’t have any furniture or mattresses,” Amy remembers. “I called a bedding company and asked for two mattresses. They delivered them to us. I was amazed at their generosity.” The Family Health Center continued to visit the family in their new apartment to provide them with support. One FHC staff member encouraged Amy to join the Consumer Panel of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Homeless Families Project. As a member, she provides guidance to SAMHSA on the realities of family homelessness. She soon began to serve on the National Health Care for the Homeless Consumer Advisory Board. After she began volunteering at FHC, the agency asked her to coordinate all of their volunteer efforts. This led to a part-time position assisting clients in applying for food stamps, and recently to a full-time job at FHC. “I have health insurance now,” she says with a smile.

When asked what gave her hope during her family’s years of homelessness, she says, “I came from a close knit family and my father always pushed me to do things. I was defiant sometimes when I was younger, and I think that helped me stand up for myself and not give up. And I am a mother. I had to protect my kids.”

“Being homeless has put my life in a whole different direction,” Amy concludes. “Six years ago, I was providing childcare in my home. Now I am working in a community health center with people from all around the country on homeless issues. I never dreamed I would be doing this work but it is through this experience that I found my voice.”

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