New Undersecretary Aaron Gornstein Hopes To Make Progress On Housing the Homeless

BOSTON, Mass.—When you think of the homeless, you often think of the familiar faces of men and women panhandling in Central Square, or selling SPARE CHANGE NEWS at Park Street. They sit outside of Bank of America on Mass. Ave. or under the eaves of the Harvard T station as many of us walk past. Tourists willing to spend big on guided tours and Harvard gear mill past, barely glancing their faces. Homelessness has many faces—the disabled, the veterans, the children.

According to the Mass Coalition for the Homeless, the average homeless person in Massachusetts is just 8 years old. There are 44,000 individual homeless students in the Massachusetts Public Schools. Sometimes, entire families find themselves falling on hard times. The state housed 1,772 families in temporary motel housing in November of last year alone. And, according to the 2011 Point in Time count, there are 1,268 homeless veterans on a given night across Massachusetts—7.6 percent of the total homeless population in the state.

Governor Deval Patrick’s administration has already begun to address some of these disturbing statistics and has expanded funding in the FY 2013 budget to include increased funds for emergency shelters, temporary housing and supportive services for the homeless.

On May 30, Housing and Community Development Undersecretary Aaron Gornstein was appointed to the Patrick administration’s Council on Housing and Homelessness to replace outgoing Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray. SPARE CHANGE NEWS obtained an exclusive interview with the undersecretary for an update on current council policies affecting the homeless.

The Patrick administration has overseen a 30 percent decrease in homeless families living in motels since November 2012. How do you plan to further that?

We’ve been working with the community-based housing agencies to find affordable housing and locate it for families. We’ve also been providing some state rental assistance to help families afford rent and ongoing stabilization services. So, after they move into the apartment, they’re getting help on various supportive housing initiatives, like job training, childcare, employment and transportation. We want to make sure that families are rehoused completely. That’s primarily been the strategy. On the other side, we’re trying to prevent homelessness. We started the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program this past year and kept more than 2,000 families from having to go into shelters through a financial benefit of up to $4 thousand that’s provided. That can help them pay back rent, utility costs, transportation and other expenses.

On average, how long do you see these families remain in the housing provided?

The length of stay across the entire shelter system is approximately eight months. We want to reduce that and get people on their feet more quickly.

Have you seen a significant decrease in veteran homelessness, and how do you plan on furthering that?

We have seen decrease in veteran’s homelessness but continue to create more supportive housing for veterans. Recently, we decided to fund permanent housing for formerly homeless veterans. We have a goal of producing about 200 units of permanent, affordable housing for this and are working closely with Secretary of Veterans’ Services Coleman Nee and the federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs. We’re also pursing resources from the Veteran’s Affairs Supportive Housing program, which provides housing vouchers for homeless veterans.

A steering committee is working to create 1,000 units of supportive housing by 2015. How is that progressing?

We started that initiative in early 2013. Our goal is 1,000 units over the next three years. In the first half of the year, we’ve produced 275 units. We have a specific definition of supportive housing, so not all the units are counted. But, for example, the veterans’ units are part of the 1000 units. It also includes housing for seniors, low-income families and people with disabilities. The governor launched this initiative and the legislature passed legislation around it because it’s more cost-effective to provide permanent supportive housing services than to provide emergency shelter or to have people with disabilities in nursing homes or other institutions. We think we’re going to save the taxpayers a lot of money but also provide more appropriate housing for these families at the same time.

What is the application process like for a family needing this kind of housing?

It varies depending on the person. Say it’s a person with disabilities who is a client of the Department of Mental Health who has developmental disability services; they’re referred by those agencies to the housing. If it is a low-income family with need, they would apply to that development itself. These are typically properties run by nonprofit organizations, and they screen and select the tenants. There’s typically a waiting list. There’s an open application process to apply for the houses. The services are voluntary under our programs, so the tenant that goes into the development—they’re participating in the services that are associated with the development on a voluntary basis. The nonprofits that own the properties select the tenants. They do this under our oversight. So, they have to put together a tenant selection plan, and then we have to approve that.

How long does that process take?

We announced awards of 150 units of supportive housing back in December, and those units are all rented out now. That gives you an idea. If it’s new housing in construction, it can take up to 18 months. The actual leasing of the units doesn’t take that long because there’s such high demand for supportive housing.

Do you know the length of the waiting list?

I don’t know the length of the waiting list for just the supportive housing units, but there are waiting lists for every development. What I can tell you is that we have a statewide waiting list for the Section Eight voucher program. They administer about 20,000 Section Eight vouchers . . . that waiting list includes more than 85,000 households. On our statewide waiting list, a family can wait many years, unfortunately. There’s just a shortage of vouchers in Massachusetts.

Why has there been a decrease in federal vouchers?

Because of the sequester cuts, the Section Eight program has dealt with significant cuts of approximately $20 million in this last fiscal year. As a result, we’ve had to freeze the voucher program. . . . [W]hen someone turns their voucher in, we were once able to reissue that voucher to another family off the waiting list. Because of the cuts, we can no longer do that.

How do you accommodate the homeless who do not seek shelter, and how do you help combat the social stigma that exists around homelessness?

I know there are people who do street outreach, like Pine Street Inn, to make sure people have safe places. We don’t want anyone staying on the street, and we always offer shelter. Our agency funds local programs across the state and works with individuals to make sure they have a safe place to stay, and then works to rehouse them quickly into single room occupancies (SROs) or a single occupancy unit. I was just at the opening of the YWCA in Cambridge, where they renovated about a 110 SROs for homeless individuals. They have also demolished a pool to place affordable housing on that site, a proposal currently being looked at by the Cambridge Housing Authority. That’s the kind of housing we need as part of the spectrum of affordable housing for formerly homeless individuals.

– Sarah Betancourt