A couple of weeks ago parents in the North End were upset. Homeless people had been sleeping in Christopher Columbus Park’s playground. They were throwing cigarette butts around and urinating beneath the play structure. The parents complained to the parks department, the mayor’s office, the police, and the city’s Department of Emergency Management.
They might be surprised to learn that as intractable as the problem is in the park, the number of homeless individuals has dropped dramatically in the past six years. The Pine Street Inn reports that the number of people living on the street has declined 35 percent. The shelter has removed 20 percent of its beds and it and other agencies have succeeded in getting those individuals into permanent, if basic, housing. At the last count in December, 181 individuals were found living on the street, the lowest number since 1997.
Two events coincided to make this happen, said Linda Wood-Boyle, executive director of HomeStart, an organization devoted to ending homelessness.
First, she said, was an infusion of cash from HUD that was slated for chronically homeless. Second, those serving the homeless changed their emphasis from keeping people fed, safe and alive to housing them no matter what their problems of substance abuse or mental illness.
The results have been dramatic. The Pine Street Inn has estimated that $9,600 per person per year has been saved when individuals are housed. Over five years, a recent study showed that 105 street folk made 18,000 visits to local hospitals’ emergency departments. Once those individuals were housed and supervised by agencies like HomeStart, there was a 66 percent reduction in the number of ER visits in the subsequent two years, during which time the housed individuals became healthier. “They weren’t dying of exposure,” said Wood-Boyle.
While the numbers have declined, it is Boston’s downtown that sees those who are still not housed. They hang around the edge of the Common and the Waterfront. They sleep in the Financial District or on Cambridge Street. They gather in front of several downtown shelters. They typically don’t go to outlying districts.
Although the news is better about housing individuals, the number of homeless families has increased. “We are facing the largest family homeless situation the state has ever faced,” said Wood-Boyle.
She suggested I talk with Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families. The conversation was bleak.
Hayes said there are about 6,000 homeless people in families in Massachusetts in short-term housing subsidy programs. Families in shelters number 2,023, and the shelters are full. Those numbers don’t include separate domestic violence or substance abuse shelters. On the night of May 29, 1,581 motel rooms were housing homeless families, said Hayes, who obviously keeps close tabs on the numbers. At approximately $80 a night per room, such funds would easily pay for permanent housing if it were available.
About half of the families that apply for assistance are turned away as ineligible, said Hayes, because they are not poor enough, even though they can’t afford housing. Those families may be living in cars, trailers or with other family members.
Homelessness among families has increased since 2008 because unemployment has risen and, even for those who are employed, wages haven’t kept pace with housing costs, both Wood-Boyle and Hayes said. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that a fully employed worker must make about $26 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment at full market rent in the Boston Metropolitan Area.
Other factors such as domestic violence, generational poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, single parenthood, and increasing joblessness among low skilled workers also can cause homelessness.
You won’t see families with children on the Common or at Christopher Columbus Park, since the state’s Department of Children and Families frowns on parents who raise children on the street. So to those living in million dollar digs in downtown Boston and reading about Massachusetts’ relatively low unemployment rate, such problems are invisible.
The solutions are not hard to figure out. Massachusetts needs more affordable housing, more money for rent subsidies, more job training to raise skills and more jobs.
HomeStart does its part by assisting families on the verge of homelessness by identifying landlords with whom it can work, subsidizing rent, and partnering with other agencies to help families manage money, improve parenting skills, and address health and other problems. They place about 500 households in permanent housing annually. Scores of other organizations and agencies are working at pieces of the problem.
Is it hopeless? Libby Hayes admits she gets discouraged because the crisis is so big that it is hard to get out of it. But she says what keeps her going is the success we’ve had housing individuals.