‘Someone did it for me, now I do it for others’

Marisa Perez poses for a photo in a small pantry of donated goods at the Days Inn, where clients of the emergency shelter can get snacks or microwavable meals.

Marisa Perez poses for a photo in a small pantry of donated goods at the Days Inn, where clients of the emergency shelter can get snacks or microwavable meals. STAFF PHOTO/MARY BYRNE


Staff Writer

Published: 08-20-2023 2:13 PM

GREENFIELD – For Marisa Perez, the decades-long career she’s built in human services isn’t just a job she wakes up for every day, it’s a passion.

After all, she was once in the same position as the very people she now seeks to help. 

Perez, who is overseeing the emergency shelter at the Days Inn, first began with ServiceNet as a translator, moving through the organization as a housing specialist, manager and program director for several shelter programs. In 2014, she served as a case manager for the emergency rehousing project at the same hotel on Colrain Road. 

But before she found work for herself at ServiceNet, Perez was on the receiving end of its services. A single mother of five children, her time in Greenfield began at Greenfield Family Inn and Shelter. 

“Someone did it for me, now I do it for others,” she said.

The Springfield resident was born in Philadelphia and raised in Patterson, New Jersey. At 16, she moved to Puerto Rico with her parents, where she got married. 

“The abuse was there,” she said. “I moved back to New Jersey, and it was a little bit difficult. I had a part-time job and I was going to school, so when I graduated, I either had to go back to Puerto Rico or explore other things. My mom suggested that I go to Massachusetts with my cousins. They were living in … Greenfield Gardens. They couldn’t have a visitor for more than 15 days.”

That was when she was introduced to what is now called the Department of Transitional Assistance, which connected her with the shelter system. 

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“It was my only option, other than going back to the abuser,” she said. 

Perez spent 40 days at the Greenfield Family Inn and Shelter on Federal Street, a time she’ll never forget – particularly thanks to the people who made it the experience that it was. After those 40 days, she was offered a voucher for Section 8 housing and found her first apartment. 

“Because of my job, I was able to save money and I got an apartment,” she said. “My goal was to go to [University of Massachusetts Amherst], so I moved to Sunderland.”

Around the same time, she returned her Section 8 voucher to the Greenfield Housing Authority, wanting the voucher to instead “go to someone in need.” Not long afterward, in 1991, her 9-year-old son was hit by a vehicle.

“I received a call from the Housing Authority about an apartment that was newly-built, in Greenfield, that was handicap-accessible and they wanted to offer me the apartment,” she said. “So I came back to Greenfield … and I made that my home.”

A few years later, her son was walking again and she was ready to “stand back up as a single mom.” She purchased her first home in Montague and, once again, returned her voucher to the Housing Authority. She said she can still remember nights from that time in her life, specifically while at the shelter, that she wondered if she’d “caused” her own homelessness by leaving her children’s father.

“Today, I can say I made the best decision,” she said. 

Now, Perez oversees the daily operations of the emergency shelter at the Days Inn, where 91 adults and 69 children have been sheltered since June. Mayor Roxann Wedegartner previously said she was notified by Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities that, due to a “critical shortage of affordable housing in the state,” families with children would be provided emergency shelter in Greenfield.

Sometimes Perez’s time is spent playing dominoes with a client; other times she’s comforting the mother who's having a tough time. Her role is also administrative, facilitating the interactions between families and the various service agencies. 

Of the families at the hotel, roughly 55% are Haitian immigrants, she said. Of those, about half came directly from Boston; others, however, were stationed for a few years in other countries, including Chile and Mexico, before finding their way to the United States. Other families immigrated from Colombia, Jamaica and Africa, and some are Massachusetts residents. 

Some families at the hotel are escaping domestic violence, like she once did, or faced eviction after job loss or illness. As for the immigrants, Perez said she’s heard stories from families who’ve walked for days through forests, during which time whatever they had in their backpack – food, water – had depleted. Not everyone survives the journey, she said.  

“They see a little more hope as they travel, and they’re safer,” she said. 

The families at the shelter identify as Catholics, Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses, she said. They speak languages including Haitian Creole, Spanish and Portuguese. Unlike the last time the hotel was used as an emergency shelter, there are more families with both parents present, she said. 

Though there are more challenges to finding housing now compared to when she was in the shelter – or even as recently as a decade ago – she emphasized there is “a piece of the cake” for everyone. She added that the work she does would be impossible without the numerous local organizations who have stepped in to help. 

“Everyone is serviced equally,” she said. “There’s a cake, and everyone has a piece of it.”

Donations still on hold

ServiceNet is still asking the community to put a pause on donations, as the hotel is short on storage space. Monetary donations, however, can be made online at www. servicenet.org/donate/.

The Greenfield location is also looking to hire two case managers and one site manager to join the five-person team at the hotel. Both postings can be found on the career section of ServiceNet’s website. 

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.