It’s time to build stable, supportive housing in Massachusetts

Legislation would transform state's approach to homelessness

COVID-19 HAS LAID bare the inadequacy of a safety net system here in Massachusetts, from workforce shortages to the lack of a viable public health response for adults, youth, and families experiencing homelessness on a day-to-day basis.

The pandemic has pushed our statewide response system to the limit — further straining the state’s critical services and supports that keep low-income households stable.

Many people are stretched thin and need help.

Now is the time for the Massachusetts Legislature to take coordinated, comprehensive action to ensure that these resources are deployed effectively and equitably. By transforming our approach to homelessness, we can move from a crisis response to investing in vulnerable adults, families, and youth for more stable lives.

And that’s exactly what House Bill 3838 does. An Act to create and implement a Massachusetts flexible housing subsidy pool program to address the medically complex needs of disabled men, women and children experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts, a vital piece of proposed legislation, combines funding sources and streamlines the administration of services to those experiencing homelessness across the Commonwealth — from Boston to Pittsfield, from the North Shore to Fall River, from Worcester to Lowell.

Granted a favorable review by the Joint Committee on Housing earlier this year, this bill adopts a comprehensive approach to help individuals and families experiencing homelessness by ensuring they receive the medical care they need and are provided the increased stability and security they deserve.

Supportive housing is a highly effective, cost-efficient strategy that combines affordable housing with intensive, coordinated services to help people struggling with chronic physical and mental health issues through the maintenance of stable housing and continued access to critically necessary health care services.

This legislation builds off the nation’s first Pay for Success program, a housing-first program run by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, Corporation for Supportive Housing and the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (MHSA), which was launched in 2015. This initiative has placed more than 1,000 tenants into permanent supportive housing to date. We know that supportive housing works as an innovative intervention for high-need, high-cost citizens by providing affordable housing alongside services vulnerable individuals and families need to live with autonomy.

According to the Massachusetts Pay for Success initiative, 84 percent of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness who receive supportive services and a housing voucher remain housed one year later.

At its core, stable housing proves that adults and families have a choice of where they live. Stable housing results in fewer moves for children in school, consistent commutes for parents to work, and economic benefits from savings on costly services such as shelters, emergency rooms and addiction treatment centers.

Data from the city of Denver’s supportive housing approach shows that when people experiencing homelessness were offered housing, most took it and stayed for the long term. Of those who were housed through the program, 86 percent of participants remained in stable housing at one year. At two years, 81 percent remained in stable housing, and at three years, 77 percent remained.

In addition, people in supportive housing experienced fewer interactions with the criminal justice system, as evidenced by a 34 percent reduction in police contacts and a 40 percent reduction in arrests. People referred to supportive housing also utilize less emergency health care and more office-based services, illustrated by a 40 percent decrease in emergency department visits, a 155 percent increase in office-based visits, and a 29 percent increase in unique prescription medications.

H.3838 will streamline the administration of services to individuals, youth, and families experiencing homelessness across the Commonwealth, braiding and prioritizing public and private funding streams to provide flexible, responsive funds for housing subsidies and tenancy stabilization.

This will in turn take the strain off providers accessing the state’s patchwork of critical services and supports, while strengthening the coordination and delivery of supportive services that help people exit streets, doubled-up housing, and emergency response systems.

If achieved, this thoughtful and impactful bill, developed in partnership with United Way and leading providers such as Heading Home, MHSA, Pine Street Inn and Father Bill’s & Mainspring, will ensure that existing state programs are deployed equitably to reach our most vulnerable residents.

We have a truly unique opportunity to test and reimagine the Commonwealth’s approach to homelessness. The pool of funding this legislation would create will enable coordinated, comprehensive action and ensure resources for individuals and families are leveraged quickly and effectively.

We cannot afford to let this opportunity pass us by.

Representative James Arciero, a Democrat representing the 2nd Middlesex District, chairs the Joint Committee on Housing. Representative Joan Meschino is a Democratic state representative from the 3rdPlymouth District.