Forgotten Homes

By Cameron Zohoori

Mao Kang is a streetworker at UTEC. On a day-to-day basis, his work consists of reaching out to young people across Lowell, responding to violent incidents, and “planting seeds of peace” in the city’s youth. But Mao’s specialty is homeless outreach. Having been homeless himself for many years in his youth, he feels a special connection to the homeless of Lowell, and an awareness of the stigma attached to it. “What are the images that come to mind when you hear the word homeless? I ask a lot of people. They say, ah, some guy, the bum kicking a can, drug addict, long overcoat, have nothing better to do, beggar. You know, I say, that could be all of it. But you don’t know the rest.”


Young people can be particularly vulnerable to homelessness, as city shelters require parental consent for underage residents. “But if they’re 18 and older, they’ve got their own choices. Sometimes they’re on substance. And if you’re not clean you definitely can’t stay. So where you gonna go?”

“Our motto is, we never give up on anyone. Sometimes you have to call up your family like, honey, I’m going to be a little bit late. I don’t know what time, but I got some young person that got no place to stay. So there’s nothing I can do.”

Mao’s commitment to chipping away at the problem of homelessness in Lowell goes beyond the youth who come to UTEC for assistance. He frequently visits shelters and other hotspots around the city, checking in with previous acquaintances young and old, offering basic hygiene products and food supplies, and making new connections. For some, home is found in semi-permanent collections of tents near rivers, woods, and bridges around Lowell. These tent cities, many of which have been or will soon be removed, have been home to some residents for many years. Now many sites lie abandoned, the residents having left ahead of city efforts to clear them out. A walk through these partially abandoned homes reveals images both sad and uplifting, everyday and sublime: a trampoline with a gorgeous river view; partially charred family photos; pet rabbits in orderly hutches, with an extra constructed for donation to the animal shelter; and ingenious repurposing, recycling, and reusing.









The Greatest Profession

By Cameron Zohoori

In my time at UTEC thus far, I have seen the remarkable and diverse youth who spend their days in this center, and have begun to explore their stories. But it is not only in the young people that UTEC serves that there are untold stories, and it is not only in the ‘media’ as traditionally viewed that they should be heard. Last month, I had the opportunity to attend and observe the first ever conference of streetworkers from across the New England region. These are the people on the streets, reaching out to young people who are homeless, involved in gangs, or disconnected from resources in their community. UTEC’s streetworkers are on call 24/7, and respond to incidents of violence, visit young people all over the city. They have uniquely privileged access to the nearby jail, allowing them to continue working with youth who spend time there. In many cases streetworkers at UTEC and elsewhere come from these backgrounds themselves, having experienced gangs, drugs, or prison before turning around to counter those influences. And every day they deal with the tragedies of violence in their communities. As Michael Saunders of the Boston Center for Youth and Families said, “This is a painful job. I still have the voices of some of my kids on my answering machines who passed away. I refuse to erase their voices off my machine.”

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 2.54.05 PM

Having over one hundred such workers in the same room makes for some powerful energy and, of course, stories. As Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, said in addressing the participants;

“It’s the greatest profession I know. How many mothers don’t get a phone call at 2 in the morning because of what you do? How many brothers and sisters are today finishing college and are being great parents because of you? Tell me another field that does that.”

A police officer attending the conference reaffirmed this, calling the streetworker methodology “the future of what my profession is going to be doing… this is how we’re going to be addressing crime.” And yet the profession is not recognized, rewarded, or advocated for in proportion to the impact it has. The term ‘streetworker’ isn’t even universally acknowledged, with the facility hosting the conference preferring the term ‘street outreach worker’ in their signage to avoid possible negative connotations. It is only through telling these stories to a wider audience that life-changing work like this will be allowed to permeate communities in the way it should.


Just as the streetworkers tell a story often not told, much of the work UTEC does is outside the traditional ‘story’ of nonprofit organizations, and even other youth centers. This is why one of the projects I am embarking upon is to capture elements of UTEC’s model that are hard to demonstrate or explain with traditional methods. I have begun to take these large scale stories I have seen around me, and explore them at the individual level. Both through specific elements of the model and intangible cultural values, I want to document how and why UTEC operates in the way it does – and to do so through the stories of the people learning and working here.