Editorial: A Fight Over Scarce Resources

The Patrick administration and homeless advocates are at odds for the second consecutive year over how scarce funds for homeless programs will be spent in the next state budget.

The administration wants to limit the amount of money it spends on homeless shelters and motels, and move the savings into permanent housing and the support services that help people to become stable and self-sufficient.

The shift is in line with the “Housing First” approach, which 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.

That’s the theory, and it’s a good one. The idea is a reverse of the traditional reliance on the shelter system, where homeless people showed up at a shelter 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. 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.

But getting there is proving difficult. For the state budget that begins July 1, the Patrick administration proposes to limit access to shelter to families in emergency situations, and reinvest the estimated savings of $25 million into housing programs.

As they were last year, advocates for the homeless are skeptical. They think the plan would shut out too many people, denying shelter access to people who have no other place to go. A time limit proposed by the Patrick administration on how long families with children could stay in shelters will lead to people sleeping in cars or on the street, and showing up at emergency rooms, they fear.

Last year, homeless advocates were able to kill proposed limits on shelter access. The fight is on again. As was demonstrated last year, the amount of money available to put and keep the homeless and near-homeless into housing fell far short of the demand. Until that changes, shelters can’t be wished away. Shelters are going to be needed and shelter beds are going to be full until there is enough affordable housing and housing support to render them empty.

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