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Despite snow, downtown volunteers ride to help the homeless

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  February 29, 2012 02:04 PM

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Miss Massachusetts 2011 Molly Whalen.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Miss Massachusetts 2011 Molly Whalen cycled for an hour today without losing her tiara. Whalen was one of 175 riders raising money for HomeStart, an organization that helps the homeless find a place to live.

The snow started falling around 12:30 today in downtown Boston, just as one group of cyclists was leaving the plaza in front of One International Place and another was taking over their stationary bikes.

Lunchtime passersby stopped to take in the unusual sight of all those legs in motion amid the snow, each of them cycling in the elements so that others wouldn’t have to sleep in them. For 11 hours today, starting at 6:30 a.m., 175 volunteers will ride in the cold and damp to raise money for HomeStart, a local organization that helps homeless families find a place to live.

Laura Kobey, a legal assistant at Ropes & Gray, was just finishing her third hour on a cycle and preparing for her fourth and final hour.

“The last time I did it, I did it for three, and I wanted to see if I could beat my record,” said Kobey, 49, who lives in Haverhill. Kobey was holding up well, all things considered, but she confessed that her quadriceps were “on fire” while her toes, conversely, were “freezing.”

This is Kobey’s fourth time participating in Homestart’s ICycle fundraiser, now in its fifth year, and she tries to top herself each time. Participants must raise a minimum of $250 for each hour they ride — the highest amount raised so far this year is around $3,000. Kobey said she had raised enough to ride for at least five hours, but four was enough for now.

She summed up her reason for participating succinctly:

“I don’t want people to be homeless. I’m lucky enough to have a roof over my head.”

ICycle Laura Kobey.jpg
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
Laura Kobey, 49, cycled for four hours today.
Thousands of families and individuals are able to say the same because of HomeStart, the largest housing search agency in Boston. Fifty shelters from around the city refer homeless men, women, and families to the organization, which treats each case individually, asking the homeless where they want to live, what the barriers are, and what they can afford.

“Basically, we’re like Realtors for the homeless,” said Linda Wood-Boyle, president and CEO of HomeStart, as she stood on the plaza today. But beyond placing the homeless in new residences, the organization also offers stabilization services to help them get settled, get children enrolled in school, connect people with social services, and give advice on being a good neighbor.

Founded in 1996, the organization helps 400 – 500 families to find permanent housing each year, almost 4,000 since its start. Its tracking shows that those families have a 97 percent retention rate after two years. Much of its funding comes from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, but the organization must raise $1.3 million from private sources each year through donations and events such as ICycle.

Wood-Boyle explained that HomeStart also offers services to the “precariously housed” — those in danger of winding up on the street. “We can’t help all of them, but no one gets turned away,” she said. Of the 2,000 – 3,000 calls they get each year for help maintaining a home, they are able to assist only about 10 percent. The rest they refer to other organizations that can assist them.

This work benefits not just the families they serve but also the state, Wood-Boyle said. The average cost of helping a family stay in a home is $700, versus an average of $30,000 for the state to keep a family in a shelter or motel.

Wood-Boyle said the demand for their services has only increased.

“The need the past couple of years is so much greater because of the economy,” she said.

The ICycle event was made possible through the support of One International Place and Fitness International, the health club inside the building, which provided instructors, music, and 22 cycles.

Building owner Don Chiofaro, 65 and known for his physical fitness as well as his real estate empire, was one of the first crew cycling at 6:30 this morning. He said it was a good event for the building and drew participants from many of the firms who keep offices there.

“We’re happy to do it,” Chiofaro said. “It’s a good cause, and they’re a good group of people.”

Martin Parquette, a portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley, praised Chiofaro for hosting ICycle. Parquette is a longtime member of Fitness International who became one of the original organizers when Ken Yanofsky, who manages the health club, approached him to discuss his plans for an event to help support HomeStart.

When he’s not managing portfolios, Parquette is a part-time group-cycling instructor who is leading two shifts of cyclists today. He was the one guiding the 11:30 group, made up mostly of staff from Fidelity Investments but also a special guest to ICycle, Miss Massachusetts 2011 Molly Whalen.

Whalen, 21 and a native of Middleboro, was all smiles as she rode her bike wearing a sparkly tiara. Community service is part of her role as Miss Massachusetts, and she said she was happy to help out because HomeStart is “such a good cause and really so needed nowadays.”

The Northeastern University student said she enjoys group-cycling classes, though she hasn’t had much time for them since returning from the Miss America pageant in Las Vegas last month. Speaking after the workout, she said it was fun and the cold didn’t bother her much.

“Once you’re on the bike and you’re moving, it’s not bad,” she said.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Downtown on Twitter: @YTDowntown.

ICycle snow.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Snow began falling outside One International Place at 12:30 today and continued into the afternoon.

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