(Matt Kauffman photo for boston.com)
It’s a Monday evening at the Sister Virginia Mulhern House in Jamaica Plain, and Kenny Benjamin is anxious to start cooking dinner.
He fidgets constantly in his chair, adjusting his do-rag and seesawing a cane between his legs, eager to make a meal that might not have been available to him just three months ago.
Before June, Benjamin had been in and out of homeless shelters for years. Gout was burning up his lower limbs. His heart was working at a quarter of its capacity. He kicked the cocaine habit that had plagued him for three decades, he said, but he couldn’t find a stable living situation.
“When I went to the doctor, he said I was like an old car,” the 57-year-old Benjamin said with a scowl. “He said I needed some jumper cables to get me running again.”
He was given the jolt he needed when he found a room at the Mulhern House on Creighton Street, which officially opened June 11. The three-acre site is run by the Pine Street Inn, a non-profit agency providing emergency shelter, job training and outreach, in addition to permanent housing, for the vagrant population of Greater Boston.
Perched above the corner of Creighton and Sunnyside streets, the square, four-story brick building gleams with a freshness that belies its 115-year-old age. On the inside, the off-white walls are trimmed with baseboards of dark wood. Residents prepare meals in clean and modern communal kitchens and socialize in light and airy living rooms.
Benjamin is one of 28 chronically homeless men and women to find permanent housing here at this converted nunnery. Residents received a room in the house after being chosen in a lottery and interviewed by Pine Street. Some were referred by the emergency shelters in which they periodically lived.
Tenants at Mulhern range in age from the mid-30s to late-60s. Some residents work; others are in the process of job training; and others are still recovering from life on the streets. However, all able residents are expected to contribute to rent, paying about 30 percent of their annual income.
According to the city’s 2009 census, there are more than 7,000 people in various stages of homelessness in Boston. While the number of homeless families and children has risen in recent years, rates of individuals who are homeless have actually dropped 30 percent, statistics show.
Barbara Trevisan, director of communications for Pine Street Inn, thinks the drop is a result of efforts to re-direct resources away from emergency shelters and toward permanent housing and homelessness prevention.
“Shelters are not the solution,” she said, noting that emergency housing only provides short-term respite for people with long-term problems.
Shelters are also expensive. Trevisan pointed out that five percent of Pine Street’s guests are in shelters, yet they take up 50 percent of the organization’s resources.
The Massachusetts Commission to End Homelessness released a plan in 2008 that calls for funneling resources from emergency shelters to permanent housing and expanding homelessness prevention programs. Its goal is to end homelessness in the Commonwealth by 2013.
Nestled among colorful three-decker and Victorian houses located off Centre Street, Mulhern House provides its residents with stability and personal aid, something that many tenants have lacked for years.
Habiba Munin, the site’s case manager, meets with residents daily in her office on the first floor. Munin is like a college resident adviser, employment officer, and psychologist rolled into one. She helps tenants find medical and mental health services, as well as employment -- and she’s available simply to listen.
“Anything they need, I try to help them with. If they had a nightmare, they can just come talk to me,” said Munin.
Though still in its infancy, the Mulhern House has retained all but one of its residents, mirroring Pine Street Inn’s retention rate of about 90 percent. According to Trevisan, Pine Street’s goal is to have a balance of 70 percent of clients in permanent housing and 30 percent in emergency shelters.
“We’re moving toward that goal,” she said.
The agency just opened a house in the South End and will open another house in Dorchester next month.
Funding for Mulhern came from the city of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development and Neighborhood Housing Trust, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, Massachusetts Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Charlesbank Homes and federal stimulus money.
In June, the nonprofit Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation and New Atlantic Development completed the Mulhern project -- a seven-year, $6-million undertaking after the Boston Archdiocese closed the Blessed Sacrament Church in 2004.
For his part, Benjamin is grateful to have someone to help him sort through the medications he has to take for his health problems.
“I’m like a walking pharmacy. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of them,” said Benjamin, a former truck driver.
Another resident, John, is a lean, middle-aged man and military veteran who said Mulhern was a chance to escape the rigidity of the veterans' shelter where he had been living.
A handyman of many trades - electrician, oil and gas maintenance worker and painter - John lived and worked in Dorchester before injury and high rent put him out of a job and on the streets. Now, he said, he has a chance to get back on his feet.
“I thought [the house] would be dirty, cramped and dingy, but it’s great," he said. "When I came and saw it, I was like, ‘I can work with this.’ I have my freedom back."
This article was reported and written under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (firstname.lastname@example.org), as part of collaboration between the Globe and Northeastern University.