Mass. Wants New Emphasis on Housing over Shelters

By Tom Benner

First in a three-part series on the Patrick administration’s five-year plan to eliminate homelessness by 2013

Part One: The shift from shelters to housing
Part Two: What the advocates and experts say
Part Three: What policymakers say and next steps

Housing First is a revolutionary concept in the fight against homelessness. Instead of managing homelessness with emergency shelters and transitional housing and accepting street dwellers as a permanent presence, Housing First seeks to put an end to homelessness – by helping those in danger of losing their homes with rental and other assistance, and with a “rapid re-housing” approach for those on the streets. The basic idea is to put homeless individuals and families into permanent housing first, then provide the support services they may need – a case manager, mental health or substance abuse counseling, food stamps, work supports – to stay off the streets.

The idea makes economic sense – if the state is going to spend large sums to lodge the homeless in temporary, substandard housing such as shelters and motels, it may be able to break even or actually save money by putting those same resources into permanent housing and the support services that help people to become stable and self-sufficient.

Those who are credited with pioneering the Housing First model in the 1990s include Sam Tsemberis, founder of the non-profit Pathways to Housing in New York City. The approach was embraced by Republicans in Congress early on and is now seen as a “best practice” for governments and social service agencies in the fight against chronic homelessness. Putting the homeless into permanent housing fosters a sense of home and responsibility and, according to Tsemberis, is ultimately cheaper on a per-night basis than a shelter, jail, an emergency room or a psychiatric hospital.

Some, however, worry that the safety net for the homeless is being dismantled too quickly as funding shifts from the emergency shelter system to permanent housing for the low-income. And they worry, too, that if Housing First is done on the cheap – if adequate housing and support services are not made available, Housing First may repeat the failures of psychiatric hospital deinstitutionalization in the 1970s, when former mental hospital patients were placed in group homes and instructed to rely on community mental health centers. Those community services were often insufficient or non-existent, and many former mental patents were unprepared for release and wound up on the streets, helping to fuel the modern homelessness problem.

Other questions remain. For example, how do you separate out people who simply need help finding affordable housing from street people with chronic problems such as alcoholism and mental illness? And how do you make sure a formerly homeless person, now living in his or her own apartment, takes seriously his or her end of the bargain — what if he or she is never home when social workers and substance abuse counselors knock on the door?

Meanwhile, below the surface, turf warfare quietly wages over the new approach to homelessness. Some Housing First supporters believe the social-services industry that has built up around homelessness is self-perpetuating, and opposed to change and the eventual loss of funding and jobs as funding moves from emergency shelters to housing.

As it has elsewhere, Housing First is slowly taking root in Massachusetts. On Nov. 18, 2007, Gov. Deval Patrick signed an executive order that boldly promised to end homelessness in Massachusetts by 2013.

Executive Order 492 reinstated the Governor’s Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness (ICHH), which is chaired by Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, who said at the outset of the new homeless policy that the old approach relied too heavily on emergency shelters and not enough on permanent housing.

“We are always going to need some level of shelter at the front door . . . but the system now is almost entirely emergency shelter,” Murray told the Associated Press in early 2008.

“At the root of most homelessness issues in most instances is a lack of affordable housing,” he added. “How do we do a better job of detecting when families or individuals are at risk? How do we assess that?”

Executive Order 492 created a 30-member Commission to End Homelessness and charged it with drafting a plan to end homelessness in Massachusetts. The Commission’s report identified three goals:

— Identifying and helping people at risk of homelessness.

— Creating more affordable housing.

— Helping create economic stability for families to make sure they don’t slip back into homelessness.

Three years into that plan, the well-intentioned promise to root out the causes of homelessness and move the homeless population into permanent housing remains a work in progress. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people – and state spending on homeless programs – continue to skyrocket.

An early pilot program that received state funding, Home & Healthy For Good, run by the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, demonstrated the promise of the Housing First model. According to a June 2011 progress report, 513 formerly chronic homeless people were housed under the program, with a $9,610 projected annual cost savings to the state per housed tenant.

Backing up Lt. Gov. Murray’s assertion that the root of most homelessness is a lack of affordable housing, the Patrick administration proposed a major diversion of state funds from emergency shelters to permanent housing. In January, Patrick proposed a new Housing First model called HomeBase, shifting some $38 million from an Emergency Assistance line item to a new account offering short-term housing assistance to families experiencing homelessness with the goal of placing them in apartments instead of shelters. Patrick proposed limiting shelter and related services funded by emergency assistance to three narrow categories of people — families who have lost their housing to fire or other natural disasters, to those whose head of household is 21 years old or younger, and to those at risk of domestic abuse.

HomeBase, Patrick’s new Short Term Housing Assistance Program, called for providing a maximum of three years’ worth of housing assistance to families currently eligible to move into shelters. Many questioned the adequacy of this assistance: $667 per month in rental subsidies to enable families in Greater Boston to find affordable housing is somewhat questionable.

Opponents took to the State House and successfully lobbied state legislators to scale back Patrick’s proposal, saying the monthly allowance for rent would be insufficient to help low-income families in Greater Boston to find adequate housing, and claiming Patrick’s proposed shift away from emergency shelters would have weakened the social safety net. Housing First is a fine idea, they maintain, but the status quo must remain, effectively undercutting Patrick’s efforts to pare down the shelter system and shift resources to affordable housing.

The House and Senate finally signed off on HomeBase, with some changes, and administration officials say the program will significantly reduce both the number of homeless people and costs to the state. But there is little to indicate that the state is on track to end homelessness by 2013.

— The state estimates it spent a record $161 million in the last fiscal year to house homeless families, more than double what the state spent in fiscal 2007, and $34 million for homeless individuals.

— There are currently 2,017 families in state-funded shelter units and 1,629 families being sheltered in motels/hotels, a total of 3,646 families. There are 2,923 unaccompanied men and women in state-funded individual shelters.

— In 2007, the year of Patrick’s executive order to end homelessness, there were no homeless families being put up in motels because of a lack of shelter space. Currently there are 1,629 homeless families living in motels throughout the state – more than double the number at the same time last year, and an all-time high for the state, according to state figures. The state spends an average of $2,400 a month to house families in motels.

Jennifer Hayes, 34, who currently stays at a shelter in Cambridge and has been homeless off and on for 10 years, likes the sound of the Housing First initiative.

“I know if I had a place I’d do everything I could to keep it,” she said. “I don’t want to get comfortable in a shelter, I see people there who’ve been there 10, 12, 15 years because they’ve gotten comfortable. If they got pulled out of the shelter and put into housing, I think their whole perspective would change with the right help. A lot of these people, their lives would turn over. Some might even go back to school. It’s sad to see people dying in shelters all the time.”

But Hayes also sees how well-intentioned regulations can make it harder for some homeless people to secure housing. In her case, a 2002 felony conviction for selling six grams of marijuana made her ineligible for federally subsidized Section 8 housing and frustrated her efforts to find permanent housing.

“I don’t sell drugs, I’m clean and sober, I want to work, I just can’t find a job,” Hayes said. “And I’m stuck in a shelter where I don’t want to be.”

Tom Benner is Editor of Spare Change News. Email him at editor@sparechangenews.net.

Next: What the advocates and experts say about Housing First.

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