Hurdles still high for state’s homeless

  • Tents set up by homeless under the bridge on the bike path in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 3/14/2022 8:35:38 PM

It took a global pandemic to highlight that the homelessness crisis in Massachusetts is not just limited to cities like Boston. In the aftermath of the pandemic, more people are on the streets, housing costs continue to soar and local communities are collaborating and prodding lawmakers for solutions.

“My sense of this is that it is not just a local or a state problem. It is much bigger than that,” said Amy Timmins, vice president of community relations at ServiceNet, a Northampton-based organization that works to assist the homeless.

Timmins, who has worked on the problem for the last six years, noted that fixing the issue of homelessness is a “big challenge.”

The organization has shelters in Franklin, Berkshire, and Hampshire counties. Homeless individuals are allowed to stay at these shelters for a period while they figure out aspects of their lives such as employment, permanent housing, or rehabilitation from drug addiction or trauma.

“Generally, the shelter is provided for 90 days, but it can be extended depending on the needs and situation of a person,” Timmins said.

Those staying at these shelters receive meals and clothes or help finding permanent housing or even legal representation. Those in need of treatment are also directed toward outpatient programs at community mental health centers operated by the organization.

According to Timmins, however, the biggest hurdle so far has been to help find permanent housing. The exodus of population from cities to smaller towns — and the recent inflation in the market due to COVID-19 — have contributed to the soaring housing costs.

In some cases, “it can take up to a year or two to find housing,” she said.

“A lot of homeless people are working. It’s surprising how many of them have jobs but they do not make enough to be able to afford a house,” said Rick Hart, the president of the nonprofit Friends of Hampshire County Homeless Individuals.

The nonprofit has worked in collaboration with ServiceNet for years, assisted by volunteers. Unlike other organizations, it does not receive federal funding and relies entirely on donations or fundraisers.

“We raise maybe $50,000 to $70,000 a year. It is invested in helping people with daily expenses — like, if someone needs shoes or medicines, we buy them,” Hart said. “What is left of it goes to the money we save for long periods to buy houses and turn them into shelters or transitional housing.”

Hart said that the non-profit has made three acquisitions so far. The latest house bought and retrofitted is in Northampton, cost $1.4 million and acts as “transitional housing,” where everyone is assigned a caseworker who helps them recuperate and look for employment or permanent housing without a deadline.

This process can either take months or, in some cases, people require a “complete rebuild” and that could go on for a year or two. Hart believes people recover better when they are not living with a ticking clock over their head, which is the case with living in shelters.

“The truth is, it has been shown time and again that if people have a place of their own, they make better use of the support system around them,” he said. “It gives them autonomy and an address.”

Pandemic stresses

Coincidentally, this latest property acquisition happened in 2020, just before the pandemic struck, and things changed rapidly.

According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the country saw an average of 326,000 people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2021. In Massachusetts, an estimated 13,994 people experienced sheltered homelessness. Four states — New York, California, Massachusetts and Florida — were estimated to include half of the total homeless population in the country.

As the number of homeless people surged, shelters have had to adjust accordingly because they were not prepared to house such large numbers and practice social distancing simultaneously.

Lyndia Downie, executive director at Boston’s Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter provider, told lawmakers at a recent meeting that during the first COVID-19 wave, 36% of the residents and 15% of her staff tested positive.

“People were eating, sleeping together in very close contact, and it was probably the worst environment possible for this kind of escalation,” said Downie.

Other organizations faced similar complications and had to resort to unorthodox methods. Crowds of people were shifted to dorms and then to hotels, and then to another hotel. Timmins even recalled moving several people into the basement of a church.

The issue underscored the lack of affordable housing units that are needed to house the vast number of homeless who are either on the streets or in shelters.

American Rescue Plan Act dollars have helped mitigate the situation to some extent. The influx of COVID-related federal dollars financed permanent housing options for some people and helped fulfill basic requirements at the shelters.

But now, with the pandemic fading, organizations are mulling the consequences of federal money running out and how the systems that have been set up using those funds will inevitably suffer.

“What the pandemic has shown is that there are some things that are just vital, and the state should fully fund them,” said Clare Higgins, executive director at Community Action Pioneer Valley, a Greenfield-based agency that offers a variety of services to the homeless.

According to members of the organizations, state funding only amounts to 50% to 60% of the funding required, the rest is raised through fundraisers and donations.

A coalition of organizations recently briefed legislators during a virtual event and requested an additional $110 million in funding in the FY2023 budget for homeless service providers, sponsor-based permanent housing units, and “rapid transitions of homeless individuals into permanent housing.”

The requested funds will aim to “address both ends of the continuum to tackle homelessness: the short-term shelters, and the long-term option of supportive permanent housing,” said Karen LaFrazia, president of St. Francis House, a Boston-based daytime shelter.

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, agrees.

“Shelters are important, but so is supportive housing. It can be challenging living on the street and then finding yourself in housing,” she said. “They need continued support, be in mental health or substance abuse or trauma. I know it is a more expensive option, but it’s the part that brings dignity back to people.”

Aryan Rai writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program. 


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