By Arianna MacNeill, Staff Writer
SALEM — Ronnie Forziati’s hands shook from excitement as he toured the apartments at 43 Boston St.
Forziati, who was homeless and used to live in a cardboard box in Florida, is one of 12 residents who will move into the newly renovated building in March, benefiting from a Harborlight Community Partners project designed to provide housing for homeless, or formerly homeless, individuals.
“It’s good. There should be more of this,” Forziati, 55, said Thursday. “There’s a lot of people out there.”
Harborlight, which builds and manages affordable housing, purchased 43 Boston St. about nine months ago, according to Andrew DeFranza, its executive director. The nonprofit also bought 179 Boston St. the same day — both were rooming houses owned by the same group — and will soon renovate that building into 14 apartments to be finished July 1.
The combined 26 units, called Boston Street Crossing, will take in 11 residents who were living at either of the properties before (all were shifted to 179 Boston St. while work began at the other home); nine living within Salem, Beverly or Peabody, some of which have been at Lifebridge’s shelters; and six from other communities.
The 11 current residents have a palpable bond, easily felt as they toured the apartments together. Each room is bright with multiple windows, a kitchenette and private bathroom — a luxury since the property didn’t used to have a stove, and bathrooms at both homes were shared.
Forziati said he’s excited, but he’ll need some time to adjust. He’s lived at 179 Boston St. for three years, he said, and is close with the neighbors.
Along with homelessness, Forziati, originally from East Boston, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for 35 years. Alcoholism began during childhood, he said.
“My father was a vicious alcoholic,” he said, adding that there was always wine in his house.
He also survived a work-related injury years ago while living in Florida. The accident, involving hot tar, burned 27 percent of his body.
“They thought I would never be able to walk again or use my arms,” he said. “I beat that.”
Following treatment, Forziati entered a drug rehab program and stayed for 18 months. Those he worked with there said relapse was likely, and addiction grabbed Forziati again. He spent 12 years in prison on addiction-related crimes.
“A lot went with it with the mental health,” he said, adding that the accident left him “disfigured.” “It was real hard.”
When he was released from prison, he questioned why he kept sinking into the same pattern. He waited 18 months, living on the street, for a bed to open up at another in-patient rehab program in Florida.
The call came one day, and he entered with nothing except some money, clothes and his phone.
“I’ve been clean and sober ever since,” he said.
That was 13 years ago.
Maintaining sobriety is a lot of work, Forziati said. The first five years were the hardest.
“Like a little baby, I had to be taught all over,” he said. “I had to get rid of all the negativity, all my dirt and start a new life of being honest and being humble.”
Pulling himself out of homelessness has come with its own challenges. Forziati is on disability, and rent at the rooming house was $700 a month.
But Harborlight was able to secure both properties with the help of the state Department of Housing and Community Development’s Housing Preservation Stabilization Trust Fund, DeFranza said. It comes with a rent subsidy, plus an on-site caseworker, shared between the two homes.
For Forziati, his rent will be cut in half and he’ll actually have extra money.
“I’m going to feel like Rockefeller, you know?” Forziati said.
‘It’s all falling into place’
Terrence Phillips, 49, lived at 43 Boston St. for two years before moving to the other property about a year ago when renovations started. A Dorchester native, he lived with his mom in Lynn until she passed away three years ago.
Like Forziati, Phillips has also battled addiction — cocaine was his drug of choice — and spent time in and out of jail. Finding a new place was difficult.
Moving to the rooming house put a roof over his head, but the $600 rent was his whole check from social security at the time.
“I was grateful for that,” he said of the accommodations. “I’m here, it’s been a long struggle. I’m going to make it pay off.”
He’s been sober for four years, and along with the support of the other residents, he has his girlfriend. She was his first girlfriend back in the 1980s and they recently reconnected.
She drives to Salem every day to see him, he said.
“It’s all falling into place,” he said. The subsidized rent allows him to save money, and he already has a goal in mind: regaining his driver’s license.
It will cost $1,500, and will take some time to save.
“I went for almost 30 years like that, no license because of the money,” he said. “Eventually I’ll be behind the wheel.”
Along with things like driving himself to doctors’ appointments, Phillips is excited at the idea of driving to see his girlfriend.
He also wants to save money to travel, he said.
“I have nothing holding me back,” he said. “It’s just because somebody decided to buy this building and do something with it.”
Completing projects like this take time and multiple funding sources, DeFranza said. The pool of homeless, or formerly homeless, people looking for housing they can afford is ever growing.
Ninety people applied to live in the new complex and of those, 56 came from Beverly, Salem or Peabody. Harborlight used a lottery system to decide who would get to move in.
The mayors of the three cities signed a memorandum of understanding last year pledging to build more housing for the homeless. One portion of this mandates that each construct 15 apartments for homeless individuals within five years of signing. This project falls into that criteria.
While DeFranza said there isn’t a negative aspect of completing a project like this, “it’s hard” and takes awhile.
“It’s going to improve their physical health, their mental health, their long-term stability and their ability to be productive in society and be positive for their families,” he said.
Arianna MacNeill can be reached at 978-338-2527 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boston Street Crossing
26 apartments for homeless, or formerly homeless, individuals
12 studios at 43 Boston St., 14 at 179 Boston St.
Residents must make below 30 percent of the area median income for an individual — $21,700
70 percent of the apartments had “local preference” — residents had to come from Salem, Peabody or Beverly
90 people applied to live there, 56 were from Salem, Beverly or Peabody
11 went to existing residents, nine to those living in the three cities, six to those outside