AYER -- About 30 residents assembled at Town Hall late last month night to offer input on one man's idea for starting a local homeless shelter.
The open public meeting was hosted by Devenscrest resident Steve Wentzell, who grew passionate for helping the homeless after interning at the Lowell Transitional Living Center three years ago.
Wentzell specifically cited segments from the town's Master Plan that attached homelessness to "housing insecurity," which also includes people living in unfit housing units or who are unable to take care of themselves.
The Master Plan claims that out of about 100 people facing these housing difficulties, about 40 percent are homeless and the remaining amount are forced to double-up in housing units, live in hotels or homes that don't have basic amenities. Wentzell also pointed out the Master Plan detailing the majority of 1,100 cost-burdened households earn less than $50,000 annually and how many people living in rental homes or are homeowners who use more than 50 percent of their income for housing.
"The lack of affordable and modestly priced housing is leading to an increase in homelessness among all types of households, including families," Wentzell said while reading from the Master Plan. "There are insufficient resources in Ayer to serve the needs of people who are experiencing homelessness, in particular chronically homeless individuals."
As the meeting went on, Wentzell laid out what homeless people would need while staying at a shelter and how else the shelter could serve the community.
In terms of location, Wentzell said that he spoke with the town building department who told him that the shelter could be put anywhere in town. However, Wentzell said that some homeless people could also be registered sex offenders, requiring the shelter to be a certain distance away from local schools and day care centers. He also doesn't want the shelter and its 30 anticipated inhabitants to draw a lot of attention.
"People who are homeless have a right to dignity," Wentzell said. "So I don't want it on Main Street with big flashing lights above it."
Wentzell did credit efforts in other towns that help homeless citizens, including Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church that did a coat drive recently. Some of those charitable churches had representatives at the meeting. Pastor Steve Wells of the Apple Valley Baptist Church noted how people are often "afraid" of declaring themselves homeless and wait until right before they lose any sense of housing to ask for assistance. The pastor added how homeless people may suffer from "four-wall syndrome" after living in the open air for so long and being afraid of confined spaces.
"I think we have a lot of concern in the town and the group that was here tonight know exactly what's going on," Wells said after the meeting. "Steve needs a board of like-minded people to work with who will come together on this."
Wells wasn't alone in offering perspective. Theresa Wilson, client advocate for the Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Devens, said that homeless people in Ayer would benefit from having a more local shelter instead of going to shelters in Fitchburg, who don't offer long term stays and could strand homeless people in territory unknown to them.
Cyndi Lavin volunteers as a cook making meals for the homeless on Friday nights at Apple Valley Baptist Church and noted at the meeting how many people can't even eat a warm meal because their teeth have rotted from lack of care, citing a need for health care at shelters. Lavin added that the church have had to call the police sometimes to help manage situations with the homeless.
"Safety is an issue at other shelters," Lavin said after the meeting. "The homeless have challenges and food issues because of their poor teeth. I think Steve needs to clarify his goals and know how we're going to handle safety."
Wentzell said that he hopes to have a shelter open by November so homeless people can avoid being stuck outdoors for another freezing winter.