Doing more for homeless people in Massachusetts

Programs serving homeless individuals need more help from state

THE FOUNDING OF the Massachusetts Bay Colony was grounded in the social contract. In a sermon delivered in 1630, Gov. John Winthrop articulated the belief that, “[W]e must… make other’s conditions our own…as members of the same body.”

For generations, vital services in Massachusetts have been a responsibility of our government. We’re rightly proud that the first public school in America was two blocks from the State House. Our cities and towns have police officers and firefighters to keep us safe. Our economy moves because of city workers who clear snow, fix potholes, and pave streets.

Businesses and residents contribute to the tax base to ensure that there’s enough money so that state and local government can cover basic needs, no different in many ways from the earliest days of the Bay Colony.

Bill Miller and Lyndia Downie

Bill Miller and Lyndia Downie

But imagine if we told our school superintendents or police chiefs that they had to spend significant time fundraising in order to secure the majority of their annual funding.

That is what we are asking each day of agencies that work to end homelessness among individuals.

New data released last month show a large gap between the services that homeless providers deliver and the state funding allotted to make those services possible. Day and night homeless individual shelters are reimbursed at less than half of what it costs to provide services and beds – the bare minimum of what it takes to move people out of homelessness.

The Coalition for Homeless Individuals surveyed day and night shelters across the Commonwealth, finding that the state is contracted for 2,856 shelter beds but only reimbursing 61 percent of the true costs. These shelters, including Father Bill’s & MainSpring in Southeastern Massachusetts and Springfield’s Friends of the Homeless, are actually providing more than 3,500 beds, bringing the state reimbursement rate down to 47 percent.

Among shelters and service providers open during the day, state funding covers just 35 percent of the operating costs. Beyond giving men and women a place to come in off the street, day programs deliver supportive services to homeless individuals, including vocational training and referrals to mental health and substance abuse services.

The lack of state funding means that service providers throughout the state must seek private fundraising for significant portions of their budgets.

It would be hard to imagine the public allowing a police or fire chief to take time away from the obligation to keep cities and towns safe in order to focus on speaking with chief executives to secure private donations. Or a DPW commissioner presiding over spring and fall galas in order to solicit much needed funding for new personnel, new materials, or new equipment.

But when it comes to ending homelessness – a goal among many of our state’s civic leaders – it has become routine for specialists in the field to spend more time fundraising so that we can turn the lights on each day, buy basic supplies, and pay our staff.

At our programs, we are blessed to have dedicated staff who are adept at helping men and women move out of homelessness. And we’re seeing measurable results.

Vocational training: At Boston’s St. Francis House, 90 people graduated from the day shelter’s 14-week Moving Ahead Program last year, with 91 percent of graduates employed on graduation day. Project Place in Boston runs three small businesses as part of their Social Enterprises, and employed 100 people over the last year.

Medical care, mental health, and substance abuse treatment: Boston Rescue Mission’s Residential Recovery program connects more than 400 homeless adults with a case manager each year to help men and women leaving detoxification programs to stay in recovery. Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s teams of doctors provide medical care for 12,000 homeless men, women, and children throughout the year.

Permanent housing: Friends of the Homeless has 110 housing units in Greater Springfield, while Pine Street Inn now offers more beds in housing than in shelter – almost 900 units at 39 locations throughout greater Boston. Through the work of providers, more than 2,700 homeless individuals move to permanent housing every year.

But our shelter directors and caregivers are also being forced to pick up new skills – how best to deliver a philanthropic pitch to a room full of corporate executives, or how to film a heartwarming video for next month’s fundraiser.

We cannot keep relying on the generosity of private donors to help our Commonwealth combat homelessness. The current model isn’t sustainable and we need a better balance. The state budget funds a line item that gives $44 million in direct support to proven programs and providers across the Commonwealth. Providers are seeking an increase to $50 million, which would lighten the burden of seeking private dollars.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Lyndia Downie

President and executive director, Pine Street Inn
Collectively, we urge state leaders to allocate more funding for the programs that help individuals experiencing homelessness. Help us keep the focus on ending homelessness.

Bill Miller is the executive director of Friends of the Homeless in Springfield. Lyndia Downie is the president and executive director of Pine Street Inn in Boston. Both programs are part of the Coalition for Homeless Individuals, a statewide collection of emergency day and night shelters, medical care providers, employment services, housing providers, and their supporters.