Policy Changes for the Homeless

Homelessness is back on the agen¬da in Massachusetts. Whether the net result of this renewed attention will be overall diminishment or expansion of services remains to be seen.

On May 10, homelessness was the focus of testimony presented at a hearing convened by the Joint Committee on Housing — co-chaired by State Representative Kevin Honan (D, Brighton) and Senator Jamie Eldridge (D, Acton) — at the Massachusetts State House. A diminutive yet articulate and informed group of advocates and ser¬vice providers was present to testify, focusing on four bills currently on the legislative docket: Rep. Honan’s bill (H.368) relative to community housing and services; Rep. Carlos Henriquez’s (D, Dorchester) proposal (H.2118) to eliminate homelessness; Sen. Jack Hart’s (D, Boston) bill (S.595) to prevent homelessness among elderly and disabled persons and families facing no-fault evictions; and Sen. Patricia Jehlen’s (D, Somerville) bill (S.607) relative to community housing and services.

The majority of the support demonstrated at the May 10th hearing surrounded H.368 and S.607, which are effectively bicameral versions of the same initiative. Both bills would create at least 1000 units of permanent, supported housing within three years of enactment into law. The word “sup¬ported” in the context of the legislation refers to “community based supportive services [that] shall include, but need not be limited to: resident service coordinators, housing support teams and other models to link low and extremely low income tenants with any services necessary to maintain their tenancy” according to the language of H.368 and S.607. In addition, the Senate version of the measure would establish a grant program — the “community housing supportive services action grant” — that would be administered by the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness to support new and existing low and extremely low-income housing.

Experts from a variety of public and private sector service provision agencies in the Commonwealth expressed unwavering support for both H.368 and S.607 throughout the hearing. Permanent, supportive housing was variously described as a national best practice, with citations of studies by the American Medical Association, Boston Medical Center and the organization Home and Healthy For Good. Furthermore, the establishment of 1000 units of housing for low-income per¬sons within the projected time frame of 36 months was considered by many to be a modest proposal.

If passed, H.368 and S.607 would reverse a recent trend witnessed in the Commonwealth as well as across the United States. As Maureen Fitzgerald, Executive Director of the Regional Housing Network in Massachusetts noted during the hearing, funding from both state and federal levels of government for housing assistance has decreased steadily over the past fifteen years. Furthermore, the lack of coordination between the state and federal agencies that currently offer funding for low-income housing development can undermine efforts at efficiency and cost-savings.

Additionally, construction and development subsidies offered by state and federal governments may not mesh seamlessly. Diane Glennon, Secretary of the Massachusetts Disability Council noted at the hearing that funding sources might have differential requirements that need to be met in order for grants to be provided; in other situations, agencies might earmark resources to different target populations. This means that large-scale affordable housing projects can frequently require several years to plan. Glennon noted that delays can be further complicated by the fact that bank financing for housing developments might not be granted if the lend¬er is not assured of a project’s long-term funding prospectus. In other words, financial institutions may be understandably dubious if the government itself has only committed to fund housing through the current election cycle.

While the construction of 1000 units of permanent, supported housing would certainly entail an investment from the state, the long-term net effect could be cost savings. During the hearing, Aimee Coolidge, Director of Community & Government Relations at the Pine Street Inn discussed the costs of “doing nothing” to solve homelessness. Citing research by the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, within a cohort of 119 chronically home¬less individuals in Boston, a tally of $12.7 million over five years was logged for health care costs, at an annual cost of $28,436 per person. Many of these expenses are associated with deterioration’s in health status due to harsh conditions on the street or in emergency shelters, which could be better avoided in permanent housing situations.

Temporary solutions to homelessness have high associated costs in several domains. As Diane Sullivan, Policy Director of the organization Homes for Families noted at the hearing, it currently costs between $2400 and $3000 per month to house a family in a hotel, not including expenses related to other basic needs such as food, healthcare or mental health services. In advocating for H.368 and S.607, Sullivan, who herself had been homeless in the early 2000s, noted, “If I didn’t need supportive housing going into homelessness, I felt like I did coming out, it’s so traumatizing.”

While not discussed to the extent of H.368 and S.607 during the May 10th hearing, other legislation pertinent to housing and homelessness is poised to introduce positive changes during the current legislative session. Representative Henriquez’s bill, H.2118, would address situations of homelessness that commonly arise out of dis¬charges from substance use and mental health treatment, as well as from periods of incarceration.

According to Rep. Martin J. Walsh of Dorchester, a co-sponsor of H.2118, “The emergency shelter system has, in practice, served as step-down housing, and state policy should reflect this reality by providing shelter providers with the tools to transition [those who have been discharged] to appropriate housing, by providing treatment facilities and the criminal justice system with the same tools used in successful homelessness diversion pilot programs to prevent homelessness.”

Additionally, H.2118 would remove systemic barriers to asset development and housing, and would study and pilot preference programs for public housing and voucher assistance. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Whip Jack Hart’s (D, Boston) bill, S.595, would prevent homelessness among elderly and disabled persons and families facing no-fault evictions by amending Section 9 of the Massachusetts General Laws.

Several of the legislators present at the May 10th hearing expressed interest in and support for the various initiatives to mitigate homelessness and provide for permanent housing development. Freshman Representative Jim Lyons of Andover voiced the impact that a recent visit to a crowded shelter in Lawrence had on his desire to make change, and pledged support for streamlining the systems of state supported emergency shelter and permanent housing. Likewise, Rep. Christopher Markey of Dartmouth asserted, “We need to resolve this quickly. Not in ten years, but in two years.” For his part, Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston focused on the need for “one database, one application” for permanent, affordable housing for the Commonwealth’s low-income residents, calling the idea “my end goal.”

Yet despite the lack of dissenting voices surrounding current housing and homelessness legislation at the May 10th hearing, the general climate in the Massachusetts state government does not necessarily bode well for economically disadvantaged residents and their advocates. Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal for the fiscal year 2012 budget, as contained in House 1 of the current legislative session, includes substantial cuts to the state emergency shelter system in favor of a housing first model.

As reported by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, House 1 recommends modifying the way that homeless services are provided to families, such that in 2012 shelter and services funded by emergency assistance would be limited to families who have lost their housing to fire or other natural disasters or to those whose head of household is 21 years old or younger. A new Short Term Housing Assistance Program (HomeBase) would then be created to provide a maximum of three years’ worth of housing assistance to families currently eligible to move into shelters. The adequacy of this assistance — $667 per month in rental subsidies — to enable families in Greater Boston to find affordable housing is somewhat questionable. Ultimately, the Governor’s House 1 proposal represents a shortfall of $23 million if the state were to provide the same level of services in fiscal year 2012 as it did in 2011.

While bolstering funding and support for permanent housing options for homeless and low-income individuals and families — as H.368 and S.607 propose to do — is an unequivocally positive step, many experts have warned against premature dismantling of the emergency shelter system, which is what some fear that Gov. Patrick’s budget cuts would do. For instance, Ruth Bourquin of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute has said, “We need to retain access to shelter for families who need a place to stay while they are looking for housing.”

While everyone may not agree on what the optimal equation for prioritizing and funding housing and homeless services in the future of the Commonwealth, the numbers indisputably demonstrate that solutions must be found. In November 2007, Gov. Patrick signed the Executive Order on Homelessness, unrolling his administration’s five-year strategic plan to end homelessness in Massachusetts. Now midway through 2011, a mere one and one half years remain before the 2013 deadline.