Leading the Way…to Change?

Mayor Menino and the City of Boston now claim to be “Leading the Way” towards eradicating homelessness from Beacon Hill to Boylston Street and beyond. Last month, the Neighborhood Development department of the Mayor’s office announced the details of a $30M plan to totally eliminate long-term individual homelessness and cut family homelessness by 50%. The initiative itself has been dubbed the “Leading the Way III” plan, a moniker that provokes a slightly sardonic smirk. After all, one might wonder, what makes the current iteration of the City’s plan better than its first two versions?

My intent is not to be cynical. I doubt if I would be alone among housed advocates or people experiencing homelessness if I crossed my fingers and wished that the third time be the charm. I sincerely applaud the Menino administration for reinvigorating its focus on combating homelessness in Boston. At a moment when funds have been cut from the budgets of, for example, education, mental health care, and disability services across local, state and national levels, it is commendable that the mayor has deemed homelessness prevention a worthy cause. Contrast the $30M sum with the comparatively paltry $10M that Gov. Patrick pledged to the cause in 2008 for his administration’s 5 Year Plan to End Homelessness. That the City of Boston alone now has a budget containing three times the amount devoted for the entire Commonwealth over half a decade is perhaps telling that Menino and his cohort are taking the problem of homelessness seriously, at least according to their own standards.

Specifically, the Leading the Way III plan proposes to enact:
1. Prevention and diversion of individuals at risk of homelessness through creation of an early warning system.
2. Emergency shelter and outreach services for homeless adults and families.
3. Housing placement services through which the City will help people exit homelessness and move more quickly into existing permanent housing with support.
4. New housing production.
5. Sustainable permanent housing “in an effort to stabilize homeless individuals so that the cycle does not repeat itself.”

These goals are ambitious and build upon the framework provided by the first two Leading the Way plans, released in 2000 and 2004. These were primarily concerned with the production of new housing units, either through construction or renovation. In contrast, the third draft adds preventive, outreach, and placement services, which ostensibly would make the transition from homelessness to being housed more personal and provide greater oversight to inhibit people from falling through the cracks.

Yet while the details of Leading the Way III are heartening, they also serve to remind us of the comparative lack of action at the state level in Massachusetts towards eradicating homelessness. A recently released budget proposal for the 2011 fiscal year contained some slightly adjusted funding levels for homelessness related programs, but did not reflect any new ideas for approaching the problem. For instance, the Senate Ways and Means Committee’s proposed budget would reduce the funding for the Emergency Assistance Family Shelter and Services Program from the current appropriation level of $151.7M to about $117M.

Nevertheless, the news is not all bad. The 2011 Massachusetts budget would increase funding for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program by $2.5M over the amount dedicated for 2010. Public Housing Authority Operating Subsidies would also be augmented by $2M. Whether or not other facets of the proposed state budget are positive is difficult to interpret. For instance, the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition Program would get $1M for 2011, up from $160K in 2010, a sizable boost but still well below the State Legislature’s initial FY 2010 recommendation of $5M.

While the mostly boosted numbers both Boston’s and the Commonwealth’s paint a somewhat rosy picture for a future (or lack thereof) of homelessness in the Bay State, it is significant that for the most part their plans favor status quo solutions, as usual. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with directing public funds to developing permanent housing, emergency shelter or outreach and placement services. Indeed, these are absolutely fundamental elements to facilitate positive transitions for individuals and families without homes.

Still, in the context of empowerment, state and local proposals leave much to be desired. As our elected officials assert, it is crucial to attack homelessness from the top, creating a stable framework into which people may move. Yet it is just as critical to combat social problems from the bottom, by better enabling people to develop the tools that they need to help themselves. Where is the funding for skills development, job training, or for that matter job creation in the plans that the Menino and Patrick so greatly celebrate?

When will public authorities realize that the more they can encourage people to better their lives themselves, the less these individuals will need to rely on the system in the future? While funding for emergency shelters and subsidized housing is laudable and necessary for certain subsets of the homeless and low-income populations, there are many people currently without housing for whom opportunity is the key missing element. Furthermore, an approach that would favor empowerment over top-heavy provision could help to break the cycle of dependency that often arises when people become reliant on the State to meet all of their needs. The difference between the status quo and the alternative is freedom.

It’s promising to know that money will be devoted to solutions to homelessness in Massachusetts’ immediate future. But the question of whether dollars can ultimately succeed without updating the public’s conceptualization of how homelessness operates remains to be answered.

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