JP Observer: Ending homelessness here benefits from strong social services 

Part 2 of a 2-part Series

Boston fights homelessness by providing housing first, plus an array of support services for the people in need of housing. The City of Boston—through the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) Homeless Services Bureau (HSB), and the Mayor’s Office of Housing—with many local nonprofits, like the legendary Pine Street Inn—are key to Boston’s efforts.

Add the contributions of individuals, businesses, policy-makers, funders, and understanding communities, and Boston is doing a thorough, confidence-inspiring job dealing with an incredibly complicated problem.

“Homelessness is a social issue that requires a social solution to the lack of affordable and appropriate housing that everyone deserves,” Gerry Thomas, director of the Homeless Services Bureau of the BPCH of the City of Boston and a member of the BPCH senior leadership team, wrote in answer to a written question from the Gazette.

Boston is doing well at dealing with homelessness, largely because of that shared attitude by a large network of cooperating agencies and policy-makers here.

Boston ranked 27th in the numbers of homeless people compared to other cities in 2018, according to the City Mayors Society website, though Boston has been one of the top three most expensive housing markets in the country (after San Francisco and New York) for a while.

“It will take all of us— government, individuals, businesses—to play a part. We need policies, resources and the will to end homelessness,” Barbara Trevisan, vice president of marketing and communications for Pine Street Inn, wrote in answer to a written question from the Gazette.

In the 2021 Annual Homeless Census taken in the City of Boston, 170 single adults were counted on the street; 1,176 were in emergency shelters; and 245 were in supportive permanent housing, according to the City of Boston Census Memo.

Altogether, there were about 25 percent fewer homeless people counted here in 2021 than the census found in 2020. 

In terms of homeless families, 863 were in emergency shelters and 51 were in supportive housing in 2021. None were in hotels or motels or on the streets. The state oversees the care of homeless families.

The Homeless Census is an annual requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to be eligible “as a key component of Boston’s $38 million federal grant for housing and services for households experiencing homelessness,” according to a recent release. 

“Boston continues to have the lowest percentage of unsheltered homelessness of any major city, as of 2020, the most recent year for which HUD has published national area-by-area data,” a press release stated. 

On average, 2,115 single adults experience homelessness on a single night, according to the City of Boston website. Yet only two percent of them are sleeping outside —the lowest rate of any major city. Over 1,000 chronically homeless individuals are housed, according to the site. 

“On a single night in 2021,” it was reported in a release, “more than 326,000 people experienced homelessness in the U.S.”

The 42nd homeless census just took place in Boston on Feb. 23, and results are due in coming months. 

According to a recent press release, Mayor Michelle Wu “led a reduced [due to Covid] group of volunteers, including HUD officials, City and state officials, homelessness service providers and public health and first responders” in conducting the census of Boston neighborhoods, transportation facilities and parks.

“Collaborating with cities like Boston to understand the needs of communities is crucial to our goal of making homelessness a rare, brief, and one-time occurrence,” the city’s 2022 census press release quoted Richard Cho, Senior Advisor for Housing and Services at HUD, as saying.

“We continue to look forward to partnering with cities across the nation to ensure than every person has the security of safe and dignified housing,” he said.

Given Boston’s incredible success in dealing with homelessness, it would serve the whole country if the many cities and towns across the country still struggling with chaotic attitudes, policies and practices regarding the complex issue, could learn from our local network’s approach.

A fundamental concept here is that of “housing first,” the idea that everyone deserves and does better with permanent housing without preconditions like sobriety or treatment. Resources are used to develop housing and match individuals who need them with services right away.

Some of the housing and services are directed to veterans, senior citizens, youths and chronically homeless people.

Except for some government funding provided, homelessness itself has been treated historically in this country as a problem for each locality to deal with mostly on its own, and different places have come up with very different, often less than successful, controversial approaches than Boston.

HUD seems to now be recognizing the need for more information sharing and strategic planning across the nation.

Although we don’t want our Boston homeless service providers and their resources to be stretched thinner than they already are, it would be fabulous if the rest of the U.S. could learn and benefit from Boston’s success in an organized, ongoing way. Hundreds of thousands of lives—whole communities—would be changed for the better.

“Let’s End Homelessness in Boston,” was the challenging headline on an opinion piece in the Boston Globe in February written by Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of PSI, and the Rev. Ray Hammond, a trustee of the Yawkey Foundation. They advocated that covid-related American Rescue Plan Act Funds could be used to jumpstart the process.”

Downie has often been called upon to present at local and national conferences.

Praising “supportive housing” as “a proven method” and citing Boston’s low street homelessness numbers compared to other cities, Downie and Hammond made a convincing case that homelessness could be ended here—implying maybe everywhere in the U.S. eventually.

“Pine Street Inn’s retention rate in housing homeless individuals who move into housing and stay housed is 95 percent,” the piece pointed out about the 53-year-old nonprofit.

Thomas of the HSB, echoes PSI that ending homeless is their goal, and the City of Boston website headlines its programs and services with “Ending Homelessness.”

“Finding available and affordable units is the hardest thing by far in Boston,” according to Trevisan. “Dealing with stigma about homelessness also makes it hard to build more supportive housing,” she said.

People who become homeless are unique individuals with unique life stories, advocates emphasize, but over the years, seasoned agencies here in Boston have learned about issues and needs that some homeless people tend to share.

Reasons for homelessness, according to the HSB, often include: trouble finding low-cost housing, mental illness, physical illness, alcohol or substance abuse, or they are suffering from the effects of abuse, lack of education, lack of job skills, unemployment, and/or lack of a support system.

Health care is crucial to serving homeless people. The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) provides a range of health care services where shelter guests and program clients can access a wide range of health care services, according to the BPHC website. 

BHCHP provides medical respite care, “short-term medical and recuperative services, for homeless people who are far too sick for life in shelters but not sick enough to occupy a costly acute care hospital bed…The Barbara McInnis House is BHCHP’s 104-bed medical respite facility now located on Jean Yawkey Place on the campus of Boston Medical Center.” according to its website.

The Stacy Kirkpatrick House in JP on Walnut Avenue is a 20-sbed step-down respite facility, welcoming patients previously recovering from surgeries, long-term treatments, and other ailments at the McInnis House. 

When mental health institutions closed down largely in the 1970s, Trevisan said, people were released without a follow up plan. “Many of those people wound up on the streets.”

City Homeless Services began in 1987 with the opening of a 100-bed shelter at the then Boston City Hospital. BPHC assumed responsibility for the services following the 1995 merger and formation of the Boston Medical Center. Currently HSB has about 188 employees.

“There are deep racial inequities among those utilizing our services and high rates of poverty and disability,” Thomas reported. For example, 62 percent of homeless men and 57 percent of homeless women are BIPOC. Their incomes (mainly SSI and SSDI) are between 28.7 and 46.7 percent. Between 70 and 75 percent of Boston’s homeless report having at least one disabling condition.

“People experiencing homelessness face many health challenges, some of them related to being homeless and being able to manage their medications or sometimes their health issues (mental health and/or substance abuse issues) lead to their homelessness,” Thomas wrote. “Generally speaking, health concerns are behavioral: substance abuse disorders, trauma, brain injury, and mental health disorders, and medical: chronic conditions (hypertension and diabetes), poor oral health, and wound and skin infections” she wrote.

HSB’s Wise Street Men’s Recovery Home, Valentine Street Housing Program for Women, and Porter Apartments are subsidized congregate living homes for people in recovery in JP and Egleston Square.

The HSB also operates two emergency shelters: Woods-Mullen Shelter for women over 18 and Southampton Street Shelter for men over 18 in the South End. Both shelters operate 24 hours a day 365 days a year and provide guests with a bed, linens, showers, three meals, case managers, and a number of community and housing resources to move beyond shelter to stable housing.

Those services are pretty much invisible to the public, but they are often the necessary bridge between a person living on the street and their living independently maintaining safe, secure, housing that is affordable to them. 

“Every story is different, and every path is different,” Trevisan of PSI said when I asked about a “process” from homelessness to housing. There is no single process front-line agencies follow. But all of them have the first goal of getting each person into housing.

Becoming homeless “can happen to anyone,” Thomas and Trevisan both said in separate interviews.

To get an idea of how supporting homeless people generally works in Boston, as described by leaders in the effort, imagine for a few minutes that you or a friend or family member have become homeless.

Early on, a person from PSI’s street outreach team that travels Boston neighborhoods 365 days a year gets out of a van that just pulled over. He or she offers you and others who are around a snack and suggests you might want to go to an emergency shelter.

You maybe say “No, thanks,” to the outreach workers, worried about what a shelter would be like. “Some people don’t like the idea of coming inside with other strangers, following shelter rules, etc.,” Trevisan said. 

The outreach team talks with you and others around the city nightly, giving out blankets, food, etc., “to encourage [you] to come into shelter or, in some cases, into housing right from the street,” she added. EMTs are called in if you need medical assistance or hospitalization. 

After a few weeks, or when the weather gets cold, you might decide to go to a shelter. “No one has been turned away from shelter during the cold weather. There may not be a bed for everyone, but people are encouraged to come inside where they are made comfortable.” Trevisan said. 

A staff person at a shelter asks about what options you may have for housing besides a shelter. If you don’t have any, staff works with you to access housing often with other formerly homeless people who live there with support to make “strong community connections.” You may pay only partial rent; the rest will be subsidized. And, if you are like many people who were once homeless here, you may eventually move on to live totally independently.

Staff also helps you find employment and other training, including financial literacy and other education programs; works with you on plans to help you access various services you might need, like mental health; medical assistance; substance use recovery services; and job training, often in food services and housekeeping. Staff also helps you find employment and other training, including financial literacy and other education programs.

Serving Ourselves (SOS) is operated exclusively by the HSB of BPHC. Classes and in-person learning take place in the Career Center located at 1022 Mass Ave., according to Thomas. Participants are hired as Client Workers (CW) to help support operational needs including janitorial and food service work.

“We operate a commercial kitchen at 196 Quincy St. serving 2,000 meals every day and 50-60 CWs are employed here,” she said. CWs are paid minimum wage, currently $14.25/hr. Most of the CW come directly from our two shelters, but we do accept outside referrals on occasion. Once housed, a CW can remain employed as a CW.

“The goals are to employ folks short-term under a year and help them transition to supportive or competitive employment and of course, get housed,” Thomas said.

Many shelters also have their own or are affiliated with training workforce development initiatives.

“The network of homeless service providers in Boston is extraordinary,” Thomas said. “The partnerships and projects we collectively work on is endless from housing through Boston Continuum of Care (COC),” overseen by the City of Boston. Many of us share grants. Sometimes BPHC is the lead and contract with Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program or PSI. Sometimes BHCHP and PSI are the leads.

“Our experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic best reflect this work where we held daily calls, shared promising practices, set-up non-congregate sites, created a city-wide transportation system and most importantly, provided testing and vaccines for shelter guest and staff,” she said.

Friends of Boston Homeless (FOBH), whose office is located on Wise Street here in JP, is a long-standing partner to the HSB. The nonprofit can provide support to individuals that government may not be able to. Their priorities are housing and workforce development. FOBH provides direct financial support to BPHC. BPHC provides case management and general support to the FOBH community houses, Thomas said.

BPHC’s HSB is supported through a mix of state and city funds, as well as grants. Pine Street’s funding comes from government sources (city/state/federal 58 percent), plus 25 percent from donations from individuals, corporations and foundations. The other 17 percent comes from a combination of rental income, social enterprise income, in-kind donations.

Boston’s Way Home Fund, managed by PSI, raised $10 million during the height of the pandemic that will be used to close the gap on homeless support services between what the public sector covers and the actual cost here. Funds came from mostly corporate donations. $1 million donors include Bank of America, Liberty Mutual Insurance, MassGeneral Brigham, Massachusetts Mutual Insurance Company (MassMutual) and Suffolk Cares, according to Trevisan.

Funding homeless people with housing and supportive services is actually cost-saving to society, according to knowledgeable advocates like Trevisan. “When people are housed, there are documented savings of over $10,000 per person/per year in emergency rooms, hospital stays and other emergency services,” she said.

The websites of Pine Street Inn, The City of Boston Mayor’s Office of Housing “Ending Homelessness” and the Boston Public Health Commission as well as the many other agencies and nonprofits working to end homelessness in Boston are extensive and excellent.

In addition to much more information about Boston’s successful work for the homeless, people facing homelessness themselves or who know someone who is can find information and resources there. People who would like to find out how they can support homeless people in Boston can also find how to do that just by searching for the organizations’ websites on the internet.

Sandra Storey is the founder and former publisher of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

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