Getting a fix on homelessness: Advocates convene, strategize

Jocephus Grant, a board member of Springfield No One Leaves and a community voice, speaks at the annual meeting of the Western Mass. Network to End Homelessness at Holyoke Community College on Friday morning.

Jocephus Grant, a board member of Springfield No One Leaves and a community voice, speaks at the annual meeting of the Western Mass. Network to End Homelessness at Holyoke Community College on Friday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Ed Augustus, state housing secretary, also addressed the meeting, saying that there’s no one answer to state housing problems: “this is about doing everything.”

Ed Augustus, state housing secretary, also addressed the meeting, saying that there’s no one answer to state housing problems: “this is about doing everything.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Pamela Schwartz, director of Western Mass. Network to End Homelessness, speaks  at the annual regional meeting held at Holyoke Community College Friday morning.

Pamela Schwartz, director of Western Mass. Network to End Homelessness, speaks at the annual regional meeting held at Holyoke Community College Friday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 05-31-2024 9:07 PM

HOLYOKE — After a disabling truck crash left Jocephus Grant unable to work, his wife moved out and the bank foreclosed on the Springfield home he had bought in 2009.

The bank sold his home to an investor “for pennies on the dollar,” the investor moved to evict him and his family, and he has been fighting the bank and the investor in court since 2018 without legal counsel.

After enduring a complex court trial, Grant, who’s now a board member of the grassroots housing group Springfield No One Leaves, is awaiting a decision out of Appellate Court.

“I’ve been navigating a court system that was never meant for me to navigate,” Grant told a gathering of housing advocates from all over western Massachusetts on Friday.

His case highlights just one of the issues faced by people who lose their housing — lack of access to legal counsel.

Mayors, lawmakers and a state Cabinet secretary gathered at Holyoke Community College for the eighth annual gathering convened by the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.

According to a January count, the number of homeless people in the four western counties has been rising since 2021, increasing 17% last year to 3,862, with almost 3,000 in Hampden County, and 312 in Hampshire County.

The number of homeless families increased by 46% over the three-year span, Springfield director of housing Gerry McCafferty said, and rents have spiked by 31% since 2020 in Berkshire County and by 23.3% in the other three western counties.

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The point-in-time count of unsheltered people in the four counties (on Jan. 31 this year, McCafferty said) was 259, up by 224% since 2021, when pandemic assistance was available. Eviction filings have risen from 787 to 1,302 per quarter over the last 12 months.

“It’s really bad,” said Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.

Search for solutions

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia said homelessness has not improved in his city, despite large expenditures and the efforts of many. Homeless numbers rival those in Springfield, a city with four times the population.

Even though funding is a big piece of the solution, it’s not everything, he said.

“We’ve been throwing money at it for decades in Holyoke.”

Significant affordable housing developments are in process, but underlying forces such as corporate greed and systemic racism must be faced, too, he said.

Black and Hispanic people form 35% and 36%, respectively, of the homeless population, a much higher proportion than in the general population.

Schwartz, Garcia and other speakers said they have hopes for the Affordable Homes Act, Gov. Maura Healey’s $4.1 billion bond bill now awaiting passage out of a legislative conference committee.

Speakers also expressed support for a number of associated initiatives, such as a more useful property transfer fee that can be enacted by municipalities to raise money for affordable housing, and promoting accessory dwelling units.

 “Housing is the best possible response to homelessness,” Schwartz said. “(The act) offers us a path forward and we are excited to work with our legislators to make it even stronger for western Massachusetts.”

The housing coalition calls for lowering the $1 million threshold for the property transfer fee, automatic sealing of eviction records in certain cases, and allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) by right, among other steps.

 “We need to make this investment and we need to make it now,” said Way Finders CEO Keith Fairey.

Housing Secretary Ed Augustus said his new department, Housing and Livable Communities, is working on the state’s first housing plan in 40 years.

Money in the housing bond bill will double the affordable housing trust fund to $800 million, he said, and help shore up public housing, which shelters 70,000 people in Massachusetts.

“Job one is protect what we have,” he said, with a backlog of deferred maintenance needing attention.

He also endorsed the transfer fee and ADUs, saying 10,000 units of housing could be created within 10 years at no cost to taxpayers.

Addressing housing needs isn’t about doing one thing, Augustus said — “this is about doing everything.”

Facing homelessness

Lifelong Springfield resident Felicia Wheeler said she found herself facing eviction from her rented home of 20 years when it was sold to a new owner. Despite an agreement with the previous owner allowing her to stay, her new landlord sent her an eviction notice in December. She has to leave by the end of June.

To find a new home, she said, she needs a credit score of 650, income that is three times her rent plus application fees, “and that’s all before I have to explain the eviction on my housing record,” Wheeler said. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

State Sen. Adam Gomez of Springfield said he struggled with homelessness around the time he was first elected to the City Council.

He called for consistent attention to the problem, noting that north Springfield and Holyoke are two of the poorest communities in the state.

“We need to do more,” Gomez said.

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton described a day in housing court, with the waiting room full of people facing eviction, advocates present.

“The judges try their best, but these cases are really hard,” she said.

It’s not just housing, she said — mental health problems and isolation are often implicated, too.

“We need to know people’s stories,” Sabadosa said. “This is going to take more than a bill.”

State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield said he didn’t think of the problem as a housing crisis.

“Income inequality is the real crisis,” he said.

Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield said Healey’s creation of the new housing department, separate from economic development, was “a big win for all of us.”

Sen. Jo Comerford encouraged advocates to “hold us accountable.”

“Government can work,” she said. “You make us better.”

She asked people to call or email legislative leaders without delay to urge them to pass the housing bill.

“Things cannot move without your voice attached to them,” she said.