Spikes are not a solution to homelessness

We don’t want our street to look like San Francisco

SPIKES INSTALLED under a bridge send a clear message to those who have no home that they are not wanted. Spikes are not a solution, serving only to drive vulnerable people to another desolate location as they do their best to survive. What are the solutions?

Although headlines from the most recent federal homeless census have stated that homelessness is up in Massachusetts, there are highly effective interventions, starting with low-barrier shelter and reaching out to those on the streets. We need more barrier-free shelters across Massachusetts as we pinpoint where the numbers are growing. Housing with support services, targeted to those with serious disabilities who are homeless the longest, is an evidence-based intervention that works. Scaling this up statewide will allow us to truly impact the number of people on the streets and in shelter.

In Boston, working with the mayor’s office and the Department of Neighborhood Development, we have identified those who have been homeless the longest and are focused on moving them into housing. In Boston, our unsheltered homeless rate is under 3 percent. Even that is too high, but in similar-sized cities like San Francisco and Seattle, the rate is over 50 percent. In those cities, more than half of the homeless population sleeps outside. When you walk the streets in San Francisco, you see homeless encampments throughout the city. In Boston, it is much rarer to see this kind of presence on the streets, and it’s not just because of our tough winters.

While the total number of homeless individuals in Boston is up slightly, by 1.7 percent over last year, the street homeless numbers are down, so the good news is that more people are coming inside where we can more effectively work with them to determine their best path out of homelessness. Together with our partners, we have made some real progress, particularly with chronically homeless individuals – those who have been homeless the longest. In fact, despite the headlines, we saw a decrease last year in the number of chronically homeless individuals (down 4.2 percent) and unsheltered men and women (down 23.7 percent).

The 2019 Homeless Census, conducted every year by the city of Boston, happened this week. Volunteers fanned out through the city, literally counting every person on the streets and in shelter. This point-in-time count informs us of trends and helps us determine what’s working or not.

No one should live on the streets or call a shelter their home. Boston’s high cost of housing, combined with the low vacancy rate, have resulted in more people showing up at our shelter door this year – a 3 percent rise over last year. Most troubling, the overall number of homeless veterans rose by 18 percent this year, although the numbers of veterans living on the street actually declined by 12.5 percent.

Helping people navigate complex social service, health, and legal systems remains a challenge, and for the many struggling with mental illness and/or addiction, as well as chronic health issues, the challenges can feel insurmountable.

As a city and a community, we can’t let our guard down; let’s commit that our streets will not look like San Francisco or Seattle. That wouldn’t be good for anybody – our homeless residents or the rest of us who live and work in Boston. We know what to do: continue to invest in homelessness prevention; make shelter stays as brief as possible; and for those who need the most help, develop permanent housing with support services that ensure people remain housed.

Meet the Author

Lyndia Downie

President and executive director, Pine Street Inn
Meet the Author

Laura Sen

Board member/former CEO, Pine Street Inn/BJ's Wholesale Club
If you think interventions that reduce homelessness don’t pay off, ask the people of San Francisco. On behalf of our most vulnerable residents, all of us – city, state, private sector, and individual citizens – need to re-dedicate ourselves to one of the most challenging and pervasive societal issues of our time. Boston has a well-earned reputation for pride in our institutions and our city. It would not take much for us to see large increases. Boston, we can do better than that. Let’s keep moving ahead with thoughtful efforts to solve homelessness. Let’s live up to our reputation and not leave anyone out in the (literal and figurative) cold.

Lyndia Downie is president and executive director of Pine Street Inn. Laura Sen is a Pine Street board member, former CEO of BJ’s Wholesale Club, and serves on the boards of Mass Mutual Insurance Group, Massport, and the National Retail Federation.