Housing the homeless

Sometimes it just takes an illness in the family or a loss of job often combined with drug or alcohol abuse to make someone homeless.  Throw in the cost of rent – even for an affordable unit – and the scarcity of rental units and you have a problem with housing the homeless.

A view of the Pine Street Inn Homeless Shelter

A view of the Pine Street Inn Homeless Shelter

Each year the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires a census of the homeless population.  This includes people living on the streets, in shelters, in motels, and anyone who, on the night of the census, is in a treatment program or hospital but has no other address.  The City of Boston does its census in December; most other localities in January.  At the end of January, the Boston Globe reported the results for Boston.

The number of men, women, and children living in shelters or on the streets in Boston continues to increase, growing 3.8 percent in 2013 over the previous year, according to an annual city tally.

The city identified 7,255 homeless people living in the city when volunteers conducted the annual homeless census last month, up from 6,992 during its 2012 count.

The census found 1,234 homeless families on the night of the survey, as well as 2,056 homeless children, the first time Boston counted more than 2,000 homeless children since the city began keeping track more than three decades ago.

That’s a lot of people.

While the raw number of homeless people in Boston continues to increase year after year, city officials stress that very few of the city’s homeless adults, just 2.5 percent, are living on the street. The number of homeless living in emergency shelters, domestic violence shelters, hospitals, and substance abuse homes saw significant increases from 2012.

The citywide census located 180 adults who were living on the street, down from 193 in 2012

This has been a very cold winter with lots of snow early.  I’ve learned that many of those 180 persons have mental health issues which make it doubtful that they would move to a shelter or accept housing.  Others prefer the streets to a crowded shelter. Boston reduced the number living on the street with a “housing first” program.  This model moves the person into housing, and then provides supportive services rather than providing services first and then shelter.  The Boston Globe explained it this way in a June 2007 story.

In the past, society’s approach to homeless people with chronic health problems such as addiction has been governed by tough love: Stay in treatment, or you don’t get the opportunity for publicly supported housing. People who could not confront their addiction, the thinking went, could not handle an apartment.

But a new approach, called “housing first,” is gathering momentum. The idea is to target the most difficult cases — the chronically homeless who make up between 10 and 20 percent of the homeless population and spend years cycling between the streets, shelters, jail cells, and emergency rooms — and give them apartments without requiring them to get sober, in the hope that having a place to live will help them address their other problems. More than 150 cities or counties around the country already have programs of some kind or plans to initiate one, and last month the Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Committee recommended doubling the size of a small pilot program in the state. If the pilot succeeds, proponents say it could force dramatic changes in homeless policy — and a recognition that the current shelter system, built on what they call a punitive moralism, has fundamentally failed.

With money carved from various grants from the state and HUD, the Department of Neighborhood Development built or rehabbed units for people to move into.  Housing First is a collaboration between state and city agencies and several non-profits.  The stability of having a permanent place that does not required moving possession with you with a high risk of theft helps many.  It has also reduced the number of long-term stayers in shelters some of whom had been in shelters so long, they considered them home.  But there are never enough apartments.

I’m not writing this because I have a solution, far from it.  I’m writing this because we need to start thinking about housing for everyone in ways that are different from the traditional ways we think about it.  Many of us equate homeless shelters with housing for the homeless but shelters are not a long-term solution.  In a post to follow, I will talk about an experiment taking place in Washington State.

Photograph of Pine Street Inn from the Pine Street Inn website pinestreetinn.org

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