Opinion: Homelessness service providers need more state funding

Homelessness knows no season.

Many people feel compassion for men and women experiencing homelessness during a Massachusetts winter – when mountains of snow and bitterly cold temperatures can threaten the lives of people trying to get by and living on the street.

Now that spring is finally setting in, it’s easier to forget that the need for services – shelter, a warm meal, job training, health care – continue all year long.

The 2014 closure of the Long Island shelter followed by the record snows in the winter of 2015 shined a light onto the demand for services to care for the state’s thousands of men and women experiencing homelessness.

But since the end of the winter of 2015, the number of men and women seeking homelessness services has steadily increased across the Commonwealth.

  • Since 2008, Father Bill’s & MainSpring on the South Shore has experienced a 67 percent increase in its average nightly shelter count. It now averages 261 clients each evening.
  • Despite a relatively mild winter, Pine Street Inn was 14 percent over capacity during the winter months. The number exceeds the record-setting winter of 2015, when Pine Street Inn was six percent over capacity.
  • Because of the overcrowding in Boston’s overnight shelters, St. Francis House – which provides daytime services – has had to open itself to provide people shelter for the last two winters, serving an average of 35 people each night.

Year after year, the need for services for homeless individuals continues to grow. Income inequality and the continued opiate crisis are creating more and more problems, more and more demand.

Massachusetts service providers know the right approach to ending homelessness and have developed programs and services that effectively transition men and women into stability.

Pine Street Inn and Father Bill’s & MainSpring have developed hundreds of units of supportive housing to move men and women into stable homes – the “Housing First” model that continues to show results. Providers like Project Place, St. Francis House and Boston Rescue Mission have job training programs that prepare men and women with the tools they need to reenter the workforce. Springfield’s Friends of the Homeless and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program are delivering medical care through clinics and referrals.

But our Commonwealth’s excellent providers find themselves having to work harder and harder to stretch each dollar to cover the growing need for homelessness services. The crush for services means that providers are having to find more money to add shelter beds, provide meals, and cover facility costs that provide safe havens.

Working together as the Coalition for Homeless Individuals, service providers have asked state leaders to deliver more state funding to help us effectively manage the growing need for care. Under the Commonwealth’s system, families experiencing homelessness have access to shelter through family shelters, hotels and motels, while individuals – including adults and unaccompanied youth – rely on our state’s network of service providers and shelters to deliver care.

But as the income gap between rich and poor has grown exponentially, data show that state funding to aid homeless individuals simply hasn’t kept up with the growing need – creating a large gap between the services that homeless providers deliver and the state funding allotted to make those services possible. Day and night homeless shelters are reimbursed at less than half of what it costs to provide services and beds – the bare minimum of what it takes to move people out of homelessness.

Massachusetts can, and must, do better.

State budget drafts are working their way through the Massachusetts State House right now –  tragically, there is no planned significant increase in funding to help homeless individuals.

The state budget funds a line item that gives $44 million in direct support to proven programs and providers across the Commonwealth. Those vital state dollars are the key source of funding that providers use to fund services and care, day in and day out. Providers are seeking an increase to $50 million, which would ensure that we address the underlying causes to homelessness.

Providers need help so that we can keep delivering care – rain or shine.

Karen LaFrazia is the Executive Director of St. Francis House, a day shelter in Boston. John Yazwinski is the President & CEO of Father Bill’s & MainSpring, providing shelters and supportive housing throughout Southeastern Massachusetts. Both programs are part of the Coalition for Homeless Individuals, a statewide collection of emergency day and night shelters, medical care providers, employment services, housing providers, and their supporters that are working together to change the trajectory of homelessness in Massachusetts.

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