Our shelter system in Mass. is falling short

Legislature, Baker have to step up with a lot more money

FOR THE OVER 8,000 men and women who will experience homelessness in Massachusetts this year, another winter amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could be life threatening. For the organizations and staff trying relentlessly to provide them with adequate support, services, and housing – another COVID winter is daunting.

Look no further than the tent communities in cities and towns across Massachusetts to understand that, as a Commonwealth, we are not doing enough to end this public health emergency – and that’s exactly what it is. And we are at a turning point.

This crisis has highlighted the true cost to respond to homelessness among men and women across our system.  We have long known that the existing funding falls far short of the services delivered. A 2014 survey of shelter providers showed that only 63 percent of the true costs were being reimbursed through state funding. Since then, the state and the lLgislature have added additional resources – for shelter, housing ,and winter overflow but the onset of the COVID pandemic brought new, additional needs requiring more resources.

A funding level of $110 million would both increase and include existing state funding streams that exist in the state budget for shelter, rapid rehousing, winter overflow, and workforce retention and recruitment. Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed $83.5 million to support homeless shelters for FY23, a significant increase over FY22 funding but, unfortunately, it still falls short. With $110 million, we can fully fund existing programs and add shelter capacity that is urgently needed across the state and additional staff to fully support our programs.

CDC-recommended protocols have forced us to redesign the shelter system so that we are delivering emergency shelter in a safer manner.  The depopulation of larger shelters has helped us re-imagine the benefits of smaller venues.  We have converted hotels from temporary shelters to permanent supportive housing and those living in shelter have not been burdened with the overcrowding that existed in some shelters previously.

The third year of the pandemic brings an increasingly contagious virus variant and the number of persons in need of our care continue to increase substantially but we lack the resources and space for isolation and proper management of outbreaks. Additionally, ongoing workforce shortages due to a lack of resources to sufficiently compensate staff has led to an inability to recruit and retain employees, and its only worsening as we ask them to come to work each day and put themselves at risk.

The Coalition of Homeless Individuals is comprised of a group of over 40 programs across Massachusetts working to ensure homeless individuals receive the support, services, and case management they need to successfully rebuild their lives. Member organizations provide an array of services including meals and shelter, permanent housing, workforce development training, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and medical care.

Our shelters and providers have always provided more than refuge – our list of services is long and, like the rest of the world, we were not prepared for the demands COVID brought but we adapted to provide services for our clients and guests. We now serve as a source of PPE, testing, quarantine and isolation space, and COVID treatment – all while maintaining social distance and CDC-recommended protocols.

By definition, the word shelter means “a place giving temporary protection from bad weather or danger.” Shelters were never intended to be a long-term answer to homelessness, yet many of our guests have been in temporary shelter for months as we search for long-term solutions.

It has become abundantly clear that our shelter system cannot accommodate everyone who needs our help. As CDC guidelines and recommendations are being followed to help curb the spread of COVID, we simply do not have room to shelter everyone and, therefore, we have a greater unsheltered population. More shelter space is not the answer – permanent housing, a home for these men and women, is the solution we need.

Yet in shelters across the state waiting lines are long – as many as 80 people waiting each night. Women and men are sleeping outside our buildings hoping to be able to come in for a day or night. We are once again at capacity – pushing limits – but still clearing spaces to make extra room wherever we can to make sure no one freezes to death outside while trying to maintain social distancing to limit potential COVID exposure. It is simply not sustainable.

Without a place to turn for support and services, these men and women will suffer. Without proper PPE, testing, healthcare treatment, and shelter, many may not survive.

We can’t go back to the way things were before, we must meet the moment. We have an opportunity to improve the way we serve these individuals and establish pathways that move them into permanent and supportive housing more rapidly.

Meet the Author

Bill Miller

Vice president for housing and shelter services, Clinical and Support Operations Inc.
Meet the Author
The term homeless is a description of a person’s temporary situation. We must treat it as such and provide the resources needed to provide every individual the dignity of their own home and ultimately end homelessness.

Bill Miller is vice president for housing and shelter services at Clinical and Support Operations, Inc.  in Springfield and John Yazwinski is president and CEO of Father Bill’s & Mainspring in Quincy. Both organizations are members of the Coalition for Homeless Individuals.