From sunrise to sunset, Dee Canales ushers families through turmoil toward stability

SPRINGFIELD – Diana “Dee” Canales’ workdays start shortly after sunrise, typically sitting at her desk in a small office she shares with another family case manager for CHD’s Homelessness and Housing Services.

 She pores over neatly kept notes in neatly kept notebooksthat chronicle the outlines of a tightly-managed schedule. Her days are, nonetheless, rarely predictable. As a member of the Permanent Supportive Housing team, Canales shepherds her clients through turmoil.

She is a U.S. Air Force veteran, but also a veteran of housing court, family court and emergency room visits. Her job is to help her clients — the most vulnerable to land in the state’s homelessness safety net — find a path to stability. Most have histories of substance abuse, mental health and other complex medical diagnoses, domestic violence and trauma.

For many, Canales is a welcome port in a storm she hopes to permanently quell.

On a recent morning, Canales sets out in her Jeep Wrangler to a series of home visits.

The day starts with Corinne, a longer-term client who has achieved stable housing and employment with Canales’ help. The worst is generally behind Corinne and their check-ins are more of a nuts-and-bolts nature.

“You good with your rent? All your utility bills on track?” Canales asks.

“Yeah we’re doing well,” Corinne answers, her oldest daughter puttering in the kitchen, agreeing, and making scrambled eggs.

After a very bumpy introduction to western Massachusetts on a bus eight years ago, Corinne has waded through a custody battle, a bout with substance use, and chronic poverty. Her four children are now thriving in school and at home. She has a car and a new, steady job. CHD has helped Corinne into affordable, permanent housing and acclimated her and her family into the community.

Their rapport is comfortable and familiar. Canales asks after each family member as if they are one of her own. She praises one of Corinne’s children for making “student of the month” at his grade school.

Canales wraps up, and moves on to the next visit – with a new mom, Saithe, who has a weeks-old baby and is embroiled in a bit more chaos. She has stable housing, however, and Canales talks about Saithe’s potential.

“She’s really bright and has a lot of charisma,” Canalessays. “She’s been through some serious abuse, has some schooling under her belt and is really resilient.”

Another of Canales’ roles for her clients: cheerleader.

The conversation is slightly more delicate, with Canales urging her client to resist the lure of chaos and embrace that potential. It was not long ago Saithe found herself in a shelter with her 2-year-old daughter, and pregnant. At least, now she is safe.

Hours later in the day, Canales visits CHD’s homeless shelter on Oak Street in Holyoke to meet with Marissa Torres, another family caseworker. A third client is moving from shelter to a placement in Puerto Rico. There are complicated travel plans to be made, loose ends to tie up and medical and dental care to secure for the client’s son. The process starts now.

When Canales heads back to her office on Mill Street in Springfield, she encounters a group of young men who have apparently run out of gas at the base of a hill. Wordlessly, she parks, jumps out of her car and helps them push the SUV to the peak, where they are able to coast to a nearby gas station.

They reward her with grateful grins. Canales returns their smiles and goes on about her day, which is far from over.

Canales has a regular caseload of 15 families, and is often tapped with “troubled” cases on an emergency basis. To that end, this day winds down with an unexpected call to meet another mom who has no place to go with her young children. She climbs in her Jeep, without a trace of exhaustion or frustration on her face.

“These ladies are not exhausting to me. They are overcoming great odds. They inspire me,” she says.

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