When the Long Island bridge closed—cutting off access to the city’s largest shelter and many residential treatment programs, some saw the crisis as an opportunity to reform a system that wasn’t working.
After all, the only thing more outdated than that 64-year-old rusty bridge was the idea that just sheltering people alone was the best way to treat homelessness. After all, cities like Houston and Salt Lake City were already using Housing First models to minimize the time spent in shelters and get people into homes as soon as possible.
Many shelter clients and their advocates called for the 450 beds from Long Island to be replaced. But for many of them, that was just the temporary solution. “We need housing” was a constant refrain: I heard it interviewing folks in front of Woods-Mullen shelter, in front of Suboxone clinics, at rallies for the homeless, at the first public hearing on the Long Island crisis.
And city officials, trying to stay positive amidst the criticism, pointed out this crisis, as the cliché goes, was an opportunity to take a new look at the system. Many homeless Bostonians and advocates hoped for the same.
After all, the homeless population wasn’t declining in Boston.
The city has seen an increase in chronically homeless individuals, a rise from 465 in 2013 to 600 by February 2015. Chronic homelessness is defined by the federal government as an “individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.”
Nine months out, and we might just be seeing that opportunity everyone’s been talking about.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has released a new action plan to end chronic individual homelessness by 2018 and to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. Authored by the Mayor’s Task force on Individual Homeless and released on Wednesday, the plan is based on Housing First principles that are succeeding in other cities—the task force even met up with Houston city officials.
To achieve that model, the task force proposes a more unified system of homeless services, improved data collection and tracking, and an improved use of existing resources and services.
Currently, Boston’s homeless services operate in a fragmented system made up of various public and private agencies that don’t always communicate or coordinate with each other. However, the Mayor’s task force brought all the groups to the table—from private groups to city agencies—to discuss how to best improve the system.
“This report… is a true collaboration,” Mayor Walsh says in a press round table on Wednesday morning. “This is a partnership.”
According to the action plan, unifying this fragmented system is the city’s “number one priority.” To do that, the city will need to create system of Coordinated Access. This refers to a new online data base that will centralize the data and resources currently spread out across several public and private agencies in the city. With this database, service providers can match homeless individuals with the specific services they need, track discharges and new entries, and notify providers about specific housing, shelter, or program vacancies. Client evaluation forms will also be uniform across agencies.
With this database in place, agencies can help clients access the specific type of services they need immediately upon entering the system. Not all homeless people have the same needs—some may have issues with substance abuse, some may be LGBT youth leaving a hostile home, some may be disabled—and providing them with these appropriate services is vital to helping them secure housing.
Another vital component is Rapid Rehousing, which, as the name implies, refers to getting clients back into housing as soon as possible. While a third of shelter clients, according to Boston’s homeless census data, will find housing on their own within a month, many others will still need assistance. In addition to locating appropriate vacancies, there will be job training for those able to work, and the city will focus on maximizing state and federal benefits for clients who qualify.
Finally, the city will need to secure 950 units of Permanent Supportive Housing, which combines rental housing with access to supportive services they need, like case managers or treatment programs. This number is based on the current population, as of February 2015, of 600 chronically homeless individuals, plus room for growth.
Incidentally, Boston already has most of the units it needs to help the homeless, but didn’t even realize it, partly because of poor communication and data management between agencies. According to the action plan, Boston has already created 4,500 units of housing for the homeless through past subsidiary programs. Of the needed 950, it’s predicted that 750 will come from these existing units after the new Coordinated Access System discovers vacancies or frees up space.
The number of units even surprised Chief of Housing Sheila Dillon, who chaired the task force alongside Chief of Health and Human Services Felix Arroyo.
“We have such a healthy inventory [that] we’re just not accessing,” says Dillon. She added that it was also common for independent individuals to end up in supportive housing while those who actually needed the access to 24/7 were stuck on waiting lists.
Arroyo quips that the system is “resource rich, impact poor.”
The city has already budgeted $60.9 million to undertake these reforms. It will need another $12.7 million for the next three years, which Mayor Walsh plans to raise mostly through private fundraising.
Additionally, the goal of ending veteran homelessness this year may be well within reach. Mayor Walsh joined the national Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness back in July 2014, and since then, Boston reduced the homeless vet population from 414 people down to 80.
The city officials were visibly excited and optimistic, and with good reason—housing first models have seen success in Houston and Salt Lake City, and are endorsed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
City officials are also excited about officially opening the first floor of the new Southampton Shelter, a 400 bed shelter, this Thursday. The second floor was opened back in January with 100 beds. Nine months later, and most of the beds lost are finally replaced.
That’s a long time to wait, especially if you’re out on the street. But, excitement over a shiny new building aside, there may be truth when Mayor Walsh calls the closure of Long Island “a turning point” in how the city looks at homelessness, bringing housing first principles to the front of the conversation.