In the Spotlight

News & Features

The last poorhouse
By Chris Julin
Minnesota Public Radio
July 29, 2002

Town Lodging House in Easthampton, Mass.
The Town Lodging House in Easthampton, Mass., may be the only poorhouse in the U.S. that's still in operation. It's been housing poor people since 1891. Currently, it has 13 residents.
(Photo by Sandra Battistoni)

The Town Lodging House in Easthampton, Mass., got its start as a poor farm back in 1891. The original building still stands, although there have been many additions. There's no farm any more, but the Town Lodging House is still home to people who are down on their luck. It might be the only poorhouse in the U.S. that's still in operation.

Amy and her boyfriend live at the Lodging House with their six-month-old son. They have one of the larger rooms that's reserved for families. Amy hopes to move out in a few weeks, as soon as they find an apartment they can afford.

Paul Burns moved into the Lodging House 21 years ago, before Amy was even born. He stays in a dormitory-like room that's set aside for single men. He takes a lot of naps. He has no plans to leave.

"I like the food and the people," Burns says. "This is home."

"It's like a big family," says Sandra Battistoni, as she makes bologna sandwiches in the kitchen of the 110-year-old house. "We have all ages, from 77 years to six months. We have both sexes. There's no discrimination."

Battistoni has the title of matron of the Lodging House, and her husband is the master. They've managed the Lodging House since 1985, and they raised their children here.

The Battistonis serve family-style meals to the Lodging House's 13 residents. In return, the residents do chores around the house and tend to the town cemetery. Some of them have outside jobs and pay something for room and board, but the town of Easthampton pays most of the bills.

In 1890s, the town council in Easthampton didn't know what to do about people who couldn't afford to feed and house themselves, so council members decided to buy a farm. Over the years the place has been called the Poor Farm, the Almshouse, the Town Infirmary, and finally the Town Lodging House. The town shut down the farm in the 1950s, but the Lodging House is still a refuge for poor people. And it's on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's a nice place," says a man named Don. "It keeps me out of trouble. I cook some. I clean up around here."

He wears blue jeans and a plaid shirt. His face is weathered. He looks to be in his 40s. Don has lived at the Lodging House for more than three years.

"I lived on the other side of town," he explains. "If you saw me three years ago, you'd know this is better. I was a messed up person."

Sandra Battistoni jumps into the conversation.

"Don has come a long ways. Did you say what you've done?" she asks him, beaming. "You should be on the roof telling people."

"I was into drugs and alcohol, big time," Don says.

"He was just awful," says Battistoni.

She had to call an ambulance for him one time - one of the few times she's made an emergency call from the Lodging House. But one morning Don announced he was finished with drinking, drugs and cigarettes. That was two years ago.

"It's unbelievable how much better I feel," he says.

When he's not cooking or doing chores at the Lodging House, Don works part-time for a landscaping company.

"I'm so proud of him," says Sandra Battistoni. "Honest to God. I'm so proud."