DEVENS — Seventy-six-year-old Sylvia Anthony operates a nonprofit shelter for homeless women and children at Devens. The future of “Sylvia’s Haven,” however, is uncertain.
By her account, the shelter has been without a lease since 2002 and wrongly owes over $400,000 in back utility fees to her landlord, MassDevelopment.
The two parties are currently in litigation and Anthony said the reason is simple: The agency has wanted her out since day one, and has done everything in its power to bankrupt the shelter.
Looking around the grounds of the 20.5-acre facility, which abuts both Vicksburg Square and the new downtown Devens, she said MassDevelopment has plans to consolidate its 50 aging townhouse units into one building on 2.5 acres elsewhere. She used her experience as a real estate agent to explain why.
”It’s all about location, location, location,” she said.
Asked about those accusations, MassDevelopment Chief of Staff Meg Delorier would only confirm there is litigation. She said it pertained to the haven being in violation of its lease, but would not answer further questions.
”I’m not at liberty to discuss anything that’s been discussed about Sylvia’s Haven,” she said. “We are in litigation and we can’t talk about it.”
With the bills mounting and the haven up against the wall financially, Anthony is the one talking.
The grievances are outlined in her most recent newsletter, where she appealed to supporters for help. She claims MassDevelopment is responsible for the haven’s debt and has offered to defer it, provided Anthony steps aside and lets another group take over the haven, which would undoubtedly, Anthony said, become smaller as part of the process.
”I can’t pay these things,” she said, pointing at the bills. “What they are saying right now is that they’ll defer these charges if I leave.”
It’s a long way from when Anthony came to Devens nine years ago through an arrangement with the federal government. She applied for a location on base in 1992, after operating a shelter in the Boston area since 1987. It was approved under federal law that stated a portion of closed bases should be set aside for homeless shelters.
The initial deal included the chapel and the townhouses nearby on Adams Court for $1 per year.
At that point the haven had not actually been established at Devens. Anthony said MassDevelopment started by offering her a smaller location. She maintains a refusal to do so led to a 27-month negotiation for her lease and a parade of facility upgrade demands that cost over $800,000.
The stipulations included de-leading, updated utilities, new windows and sprinklers, which Anthony said were installed in phases. She credited a number of private donations and a state appropriation for underwriting the work, which took three years.
Such was not the case with the chapel, which MassDevelopment would not let her use until it was rehabilitated. Though it was intended to be integral with her faith-based mission, the cost of basic maintenance for the facility was prohibitive and it was never brought online. Eventually, it was returned to MassDevelopment.
More problematic in the long run were the utilities in the haven itself. In her previous shelter, Anthony forwarded gas bills to the state fuel assistance program, which covered them. At Devens, her gas company is MassDevelopment, which she claims installed one meter per two townhouses. Anthony said that made it impossible to get accurate meter readings for the units and makes them ineligible for the program.
Overall, Anthony said she never thought things would get to where they are now. Those utility are the reason for litigation between the haven and MassDevelopment, she said.
Delorier would comment on none of the above statements.
By October 2002, Anthony said MassDevelopment began eviction proceedings against the haven, which her attorneys deemed illegal. Though she’s been able to stay on since then, the financial burden has continued to grow and Anthony clearly indicated it’s near the breaking point.
Having not drawn a paycheck from the haven in weeks, Anthony said it’s a miracle she’s made it this far. But she says God is not ready for her to quit and, while she isn’t certain it will happen at Devens, she wants to see the haven continue.
”I honestly believe God wants me to continue or He would not have taken me this far,” she said. “If God wanted me to stop I’d be dead by now. It is a very needed ministry and it is my wish that Sylvia’s Haven continues long after I’m gone.”
There are currently 19 women living at the haven with 44 children.
Anthony said the haven has helped 976 women and children since setting up shop at Devens, and she claims a 90 percent success rate.
Pastor Brian Loiselle, from the Ayer Church of God, has only been in Ayer for a couple years, but could relate one firsthand account about the Haven.
About a year ago, it came to his attention a regular churchgoer had a grown daughter with children that had nowhere to go. They’d come to live with him in a small apartment, but the space limitations were hardly bearable.
Acting on the advice of longtime residents, the family was referred to the haven, where they received help, cloths, food and space to stay together. The woman is still in the area and has stayed in touch with the pastor.
In that case, Loiselle said the Haven delivered as advertised.
”We tried to help, and Sylvia’s Haven was the answer in this case,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know where they’d be. It was definitely the thing they needed.”
Acton resident Frank Austin offered another perspective on Sylvia’s Haven. Austin is part of the Concord-Acton Family Homelessness Advocacy Network, an organization of churches that advocate for shelter’s such as Sylvia’s Haven.
”There are over 10,000 homeless families in Massachusetts, and the state has less than 1,500 shelter units,” he said. “Most of those are combined area spaces. Sylvia’s represents probably 10 percent of state’s independent homeless shelter capacity.
”There’s no question we need more shelters, and they should be independent shelter units,” he said.
Austin expressed little doubt that MassDevelopment would like to see Sylvia gone, but said his wish was that the two parties would come to terms. He’s currently leading an advocacy effort to get a petition to the legislature to secure state funding for the haven, a task he termed a worthwhile endeavor.
”It is my distinct honor to stand up for this woman considering the work she’s done and the way the state has treated her,” he said.