Editorial: Encouragement in the fight against homelessness

Credit is due to the Patrick administration for its efforts to reduce the Bay State’s homeless population. A new emphasis on housing as the first response to homelessness promises to be more humane — and cost-effective — than our traditional reliance on shelters and motels to get people off the streets. The policy shift took effect on Aug. 1, and the administration already reports progress in putting more people into housing.

The Housing First model starts with the assumption that for the majority, homelessness is a housing problem. That’s particularly true thanks to a shortage of affordable rental housing and an increase in poverty. 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. Homeless coordinators, transitional assistance workers and community-based non-profits work together to help find long-term housing and employment solutions.

The idea is a reverse of the traditional reliance on the shelter system, where homeless people showed up for a place to stay and to access the services they would need to get back on their feet and into permanent housing in the distant future.

It’s a more humane approach — a shelter or motel room is no place to raise a family or achieve stability. And a shelter may beat staying on the streets, but as one housing advocate put it, shelters have become the poor houses of the 21st century. They are an important part of the safety net, but they are no substitute for permanent housing.

Putting the homeless into permanent housing fosters a sense of home and responsibility and is ultimately cheaper on a per-night basis than a shelter, jail, an emergency room or a psychiatric hospital.

In addition, 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 can actually save money by putting those same resources into permanent housing and the support services that help people to become stable and self-sufficient.

“The hotel/motel, you’re talking $3,000 a month, whereas a shallow subsidy and maybe some of the assistance could be $1,000,” said Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, the Patrick administration’s point man on the homeless, and a one-time housing advocate at a non-profit agency in Framingham.

There is also some push to the Housing First approach. It’s not free housing. Under the administration’s new homeless policy, called HomeBASE, qualifying families receive short-term rental assistance and pay up to 35 percent of their income toward rent and utilities. Families could also receive assistance of up to $4,000 to avoid homelessness if they don’t need continuous rental assistance. HomeBASE assistance is capped at three continuous years.

The new emphasis on housing raises some questions. 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 his or her end of the bargain seriously — what if he or she is never home when social workers and substance abuse counselors knock on the door?

There is a long way to go. As of July there were 2,017 families in state-funded shelter units and 1,629 families being sheltered in motels/hotels, a total of 3,646 families. There were 2,923 unaccompanied men and women in state-funded individual shelters.

The hope is that those numbers will go down. The Patrick administration’s thoughtful approach to homeless policy offers some encouragement.

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