Political science alumnus helps care for Boston homeless — now more than ever

Susan Burlingame
July 16, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State political science alumnus Larry Seamans was working for a Boston-based human services agency when someone entered his office with an infographic of the United States.

“Each state had a dot on it, and Massachusetts’ dot was red,” he said. “The red dot indicated that Massachusetts had the fourth-highest level of family homelessness in the country, and I realized that dot was directly connected to my family.”

Years earlier, Seamans and his spouse adopted two children who had formerly been homeless, and he had served as a big brother for a homeless youth through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program.

“Someday, I’m going to tackle that dot,” Seamans remembered telling himself. In 2018, he set out to make good on that promise by becoming the chief executive officer of FamilyAid Boston, one of the first homeless aid organizations in the country. He quickly learned that most programs for homeless families focus on parents without considering the dire consequences for their children, so he refocused the agency’s priorities to make sure children were also receiving educational support and more.  

“We adopted a two-generational model and became the largest provider of services to homeless families in the state,” Seamans said. For its innovative programs, FamilyAid Boston received a surprise $5 million grant from Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos’ Day 1 Family Fund. Only 25 such grants were awarded across the country.

In normal times, FamilyAid Boston works with some 123 sheltered families, 130 recently housed families, and 200 additional families to prevent them from becoming homeless.

But these are not normal times.

Just before the pandemic hit, FamilyAid conducted a survey and found that 70% of the agency’s client families were employed.

“On March 12, the governor called for a state of emergency and lockdown,” said Seamans. “On March 18, we surveyed again, and none of our families were working. None of them.”

Most, he said, were doing low-wage jobs like making coffee and cleaning hotel rooms — the types of jobs that dried up immediately when Massachusetts went into lockdown.

“Our families work hard at the lowest economic rungs of society,” he said. “Ninety percent of the people we work with are women. Sixty percent of the children are under age 3, and now they [their families] have no income.”  

Seamans said his Penn State education taught him to “look at the world around you” and to use data to understand how social systems connect with political systems. He realized the government was focusing on the immediate medical crisis related to COVID-19 and not issues related to hunger and homelessness exacerbated by the pandemic.

“While the medical issues are certainly important, that isn’t our priority,” he noted. “Our priority is to make sure our families have enough food and supplies to get through the week. When we asked, the overwhelming answer was ‘no.’”

Practically overnight, said Seamans, FamilyAid Boston added daily, emergency humanitarian aid to its work while also increasing its counseling, shelter, housing and prevention services.

“We left our corporate offices and turned them into a warehouse and distribution center. We got private donations, and we began a weekly distribution of over a ton of food and supplies,” he said. “While we don’t have the resources or the contracts to do it, we have the obligation to society to ensure that the people at the lowest rung can survive the pandemic.”

The number of people being helped started in the hundreds but has climbed to well over 2,000 children and parents, according to Seamans. He said FamilyAid Boston is trying to raise funds to continue to purchase and distribute food and supplies, and they have been interfacing with both the public and private sectors. Seamans said he has been working with Boston city officials to fill the gaps in the political and social systems.

“Urban areas have what we call ‘food deserts’ — communities where there is no grocery store and where the local school, where food is being distributed, is only accessible via public transportation,” said Seamans. “If you’re a low-income mother with two little babies and no public transportation, the last thing you’re able to do is figure out where the local school is where they are distributing food.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Seamans said, realized that Boston homeless shelters are often in food deserts with no accessibility.

“So now, the mayor is literally sending his staff to help us deliver food. We also have other organizations pitching in – a sewing circle is making masks for babies," said Seamans. "A company out of Chicago that supplied boxed lunches and dinners for the airline industry is air-dropping food.”

The underpinning of all of these efforts is what I learned at Penn State about how systems work and how you have to leverage all you can to help the people who are most disadvantaged in the world," said Seamans, 

“Poverty takes different faces in different types of communities, so what poverty looks like in a rural community versus an urban community may be very different,” he continued. “But at the core of all of it is human need. How we respond to it depends upon the systems in place, and that’s what we’re trying to leverage in Boston.”

  • FamilyAid Packaging

    FamilyAid staff prepare a weekly distribution of one ton of food and supplies to homeless children and parents in Boston during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    IMAGE: Rachel Canar

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2020