How to solve homelessness

Solutions abound; they just need money

TONIGHT, 6,300 MEN and women across the Commonwealth will sleep on the streets or in shelter. Although that statistic may be disheartening, this does not have to be the case.

Homeless services providers across the state do not lack for solutions to end homelessness – we lack the necessary resources. Additional funding would allow providers to address the underlying causes of homelessness, deliver critical case management services, and support greater numbers of men and women in moving out of homelessness.

Massachusetts state government provides funding for homeless services through two channels: funding for homeless individuals is separate from funding for homeless families, a fact which many may not know.

Homeless individuals (adult men and women) in Massachusetts account for 33 percent of the homeless population, but programs supporting individuals receive only 18 percent of the total funding allocated for homeless support services. State funding for shelter beds for homeless individuals only covers 47 percent of the cost to provide those beds.

The Coalition of Homeless Individuals (CHI) is comprised of 40 organizations across Massachusetts, a group that ensures the most vulnerable among us receive the services and case management to successfully rebuild their lives. These providers offer an array of services including: permanent housing, workforce development training, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and medical care.

The Legislature is taking steps in the right direction to respond to these discrepancies and needs. The House established a new, $5 million line item to focus on the rapid transition of homeless individuals into sustainable, permanent housing. This funding recognizes a need to take a more assertive and housing outcome-based approach to ending homelessness.

Additionally, the Senate increased the funding in the main line item that funds the programs supporting homeless individuals, to $48.2 million – a 6.46 percent increase over last year’s funding. The combination of housing along with the supportive programs and services we offer that keep our clients going every day has already proven to be the key to success for homeless individuals. Together, this level of funding provided by the House and the Senate could be the beginning of a change of trajectory in our response to homelessness so that we can ensure it is rare, brief, and non-reoccurring.

Supporting individuals on their path out of homelessness requires more than housing. It requires the programs and services offered by CHI organizations that help ensure our clients’ stability every day. Boston has one of the lowest rates of unsheltered people living in the country, a statistic that is not achieved by chance. Innovative programs have been implemented across the Commonwealth, but for every individual they help, more men and women are coming in every day.

Father Bill’s & MainSpring’s in southern Massachusetts is having great success maintaining a low count of unsheltered individuals. This year, there was a 56 percent reduction in unsheltered individuals from the previous year, and the agency had a 98 percent retention rate in its permanent, supportive housing programs. However, the number of homeless individuals in need of shelter increased by 13 percent.

But permanent housing is the end goal, and we know that housing works: Pine Street maintains a 93 percent retention rate in its permanent supportive housing. Housing also provides significant cost savings across systems, particularly emergency and medical services. One individual had been in and out of shelter for years, and visited emergency rooms 216 times in one year. Since he became housed and received support to help him become and remain stable, he has not been to an emergency once in the past eight years.

Through a coordinated access system, the city of Boston has instituted innovative programs that divert individuals from shelter back to family or friends, as well as initiatives to rapidly “rehouse” those who are in shelter. They have virtually ended veteran homelessness and are marching towards ending chronic homelessness, as well.

Meet the Author

Lyndia Downie

President and executive director, Pine Street Inn
Meet the Author
For many homeless men and women, the solutions are complex. This means helping individuals not only find permanent housing, but also meaningful employment, often made possible by our vocational and job training programs. A veteran who, in his own words, “had fallen victim to the demons of the world: drugs, alcohol, homelessness,” went to Project Place, a Boston-based nonprofit helping homeless individuals get back on their feet, with the hope of building a more stable life. While working in the social enterprise program, he developed skills and a strong work ethic that enabled his case managers to help him obtain a position with the City of Boston, where he has since been promoted into a management position. He has reconnected with his family and keeps moving his life forward.

Knowing all that is possible, it is time for us to commit to the expectation of ending homelessness in Massachusetts – not simply managing it.

Lyndia Downie is president and executive director of the Pine Street Inn in Boston. John Yazwinski is CEO and president of Father Bill’s & Mainspring which provides shelter and services on the South Shore.