Libby Conn: Project Hope, 2006-2007

Libby Conn

Fatima and her baby. Photograph by Libby Conn.

Introduction by Libby Conn

By the fall of 2006 when I arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, the U.S. economy was already slowing down, if not yet dominating the headlines. The subprime mortgage crisis was beginning to reveal itself, and rising oil prices were driving up the costs of gas, oil for heating homes, and food. Healthcare costs had more than doubled since I’d started high school ten years earlier, and the federal minimum wage was stuck below six dollars an hour. People all over the city were pinching pennies, but no one felt the rising costs more acutely than low-income families.

During my ten-month fellowship as a Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow with Project Hope, over four thousand families in Massachusetts sought placement in homeless shelters, a majority of them headed by single mothers with young children. There were no natural disasters during those months, no civil unrest or invading armies—just straightforward poverty. It’s easy to see why when one considers that to achieve a basic standard of living a Boston family with two children needs an annual income of over $58,000. For the average single woman leaving welfare, that’s roughly $40,000 more than her yearly earnings, which means the cost of market-priced rental housing is simply out of reach for her and her family.

The housing problem began in the 1980s when, as in many other cities, Boston’s rental units started disappearing to make room for condominiums and luxury units. At the same time, federal support for subsidized housing started to drop off, wages idled, and costs rose. And in large numbers, victims of domestic violence were speaking up and leaving abusive homes behind, with nowhere in particular to turn.

Sister Margaret Leonard and the Little Sisters of Assumption had been working with Boston’s poor for decades. But when they looked around their Dorchester neighborhood in the 1980s, they increasingly saw women and children sleeping in cars and in abandoned, rodent-infested buildings. They invited these homeless families to live with them in their convent, and Project Hope was born.

Project Hope is a multi-service agency serving the Dudley Street neighborhood in North Dorchester and Roxbury in South Boston. Project Hope helps families gain access to emergency services, housing, education, and jobs, so that they can begin to transition away from poverty and homelessness. During my placement with Project Hope, my job was to find a way to document the transformation that can happen when a woman, in partnership with an organization like Project Hope, dramatically changes the circumstances of her life and the life of her family.

No single family I met during my ten months with Project Hope completed the journey from homelessness to self-sufficiency. The road from living in a shelter to being happily housed, nourished, educated, and employed is a long one. Rather, the women and children I worked with were writing chapters in their stories of transformation. Some were thousands of miles from home and just beginning to learn the language and customs of a new country. Some had fled abuse, and some were still trying to break free. There was a woman who’d been trying to pass the math portion of her GED for two years, and there was a woman who had finally made it to college and was earning straight A’s. There were children who were sleeping on floors in apartments across the city, but there were also families who, at last, were moving bedroom sets into their new homes.

The audio documentaries presented here are from a series of podcasts I developed with the women of Project Hope. Our idea was that by sharing these stories of transformation and the new lives available to members of the Project Hope community, families at every step of the way might be reminded that a seemingly hopeless situation can actually be only temporary. I hope these pieces speak to some of the questions that continually came up for me at Project Hope: How do you start over when you’ve lost absolutely everything? How do you arrive at a different vision for yourself—how do you begin to see things as possible rather than impossible? How does crisis change you, and what can you then teach the rest of us?

Libby Conn

Libby Conn

Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow 2006-2007

Though she was born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, Libby Conn quickly fell in love with her adopted home of North Carolina while studying as an undergraduate at the Center for Documentary Studies.