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After a long ride, Shay gets her day


She bounced on the bed – her bed – like a kid on a trampoline.

She stuck her hand under the bathroom faucet, thrilled the water was hot. She marveled over the kitchen, with its fridge and stove.

This was appreciation in its purest form. That’s what happens when a 42-year-old woman like Shay Utter – who was homeless in Concord for 14 years, sexually abused starting in grade-school and fighting with substance abuse since – suddenly finds herself with a thick mattress and heat.

She’s starting over in an apartment. Hers. It’s new, and, as far as secure living goes, it’s a new deal for Utter as well.

“Now I can cook,” she proclaimed, surrounded by representatives from the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. “And I haven’t had a bed in so long.”

The coalition – with its octopus-like ability to spread its arms and tie a community together toward a specific goal – is the organization out front.

Grants, volunteers and donations – one anonymous donor gave $100,000 – helped the non-profit achieve its mission, to literally end homelessness for a few people at a time. Four new apartments on Green Street, were painstakingly rehabbed, modernized and furnished over the past few months. Utter was one of the winners, moving through the arduous paperwork and counseling to make sure she was a viable, responsible, sober tenant.

Utter said she last used sometime in the summer. Riverbend Community Mental Health administers a drug test once a week, part of the deal that’s opened this new door.

This second chance surfaced after Utter took stock of herself. She looked in the mirror and figured out what she wanted to do.

What she needed to do.

“I want to see my children and I still have not seen them in a long time,” said Utter, whose kids live in Franklin. “If I don’t stay clean, they do not want to be with me, and I don’t blame them. I understand where they are coming from.”

She cried on the phone, at that very moment. She had suffered a strained back, a recurring problem and one reason she receives disability payments, which pay $400 of her $1,200 monthly rent.

She toughed it out on the phone, mixing squeals of pain with words of drama. Utter’s physical and emotional pain mixed with her anxiety over speaking to the media, and that made for a difficult interview, with rushed, nervous answers that, at times, were hard to understand.

Enter Julie Green. She’s the clinical director of case management for the coalition, where she’s worked for three years. That’s also when she started helping Utter, or at least trying. No one knows Utter better than Green.

She helped calm Utter and clarify some of the things Utter was saying.

“She wanted to be the mom she’s always wanted to be the last several years,” Green said. “That was one of her biggest goals, to be more in her kids’ lives. That is the thing that brings her most to tears.”

She also had her own thoughts, telling me, “To see her three years ago and then to see her on Thursday (move-in day) was an amazing sight that filled my heart with joy. It will show homeless people and her peers that it can work if you show the dedication.”

For Utter, it looked hopeless. That cloud hovered over her for years. She had a rap sheet littered with arrests centered around her addiction. Shoplifting, DUI, bizarre, sometimes aggressive antics that led to incarceration more than once.

“She has not given up on herself when she could have,” Green said. “I cannot even imagine how she survived with the things that happen at these encampments and with what she has gone through over the years.”

The timeline and bumps in the road, as told by Utter, were scattered, hard to follow.

But the effects were clear. She had grown up in foster care after her parents split, moving to Concord as a young child. She had been assaulted sexually and got hooked on drugs, so she spent most of the past 14 years at a homeless site near the old drive-in movie theater.

She stayed in shelters now and then. She stayed outside more often, even on bitter nights.

“You suck it up, or you give it up,” Utter reasoned.

Utter sucked it up, and winter’s effects over time were visible. As Green said, “She always has some sort of windburn-look to her face. She’s grown to have tough skin.”

Her bed, Utter said, once consisted of at least 35 blankets serving as her mattress, and another three blankets for cover. “I’d snag any blanket I could,” Utter said.

But something clicked in recent months, after some of her homeless friends had died. Her thoughts shifted to her own children.

Utter says she quit using last summer. One month later, she and Green had transformed into the dynamic duo, fighting for truth, justice and a roof overhead.

“Up until about six months ago her substance abuse was highly significant,” Green said. “Shay had a wakeup call and worked on recovery and her mental health and getting her kids back.”

“She told me if she keeps living like this,” Green continued, “she will be the next statistic of someone being found dead. There have been many deaths recently and some were her close friends, and that was a push for her to say, ‘I can do this.’ ”

The wind no longer blows so cold. We met at her new place, small yet perfect for one person who’s essentially starting over. Utter came in with an entourage, which included the coalition’s Executive Director Ellen Groh, Chief Operating Officer Leslie Finke, a staff photographer and lots of hope.

And Utter. She wore a blue COVID-fighting mask and a colorful Grateful Dead shirt, at a time when, finally, she’s grateful that she’s not dead.

Remember, though, this isn’t a gift, it’s a partnership. She is required to stay sober and will receive the support to do so. She has responsibilities, paying rent, keeping the noise down at night, cleaning up, living the type of life that so many take for granted.

“We’ve had a lot of those conversations about her knocking this off and how she is frustrating the heck out of both of us,” Green said. “But Shay and I have gained each other’s trust over the years, and from her end it’s frustrating too.”

Not on moving-in day it wasn’t. Not a sliver of frustration, anywhere. Only hardwood floors and new appliances.

A new start for a middle-aged woman with weathered skin and a light – not to mention tears – in her eyes, suggesting she’s ready to fight demons, ready for a new way of life.

That’s why she jumped on her bed and raised her arms above her head like a referee signaling touchdown.

“It’s been hard, hard,” Utter said. “There are obstacles I should never have survived.”

Her focus quickly changed.

“Look, I got pillows, too.”


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