Does Massachusetts Need a Homelessness Czar? State Representatives Chime in on the Matter

A recent article in the Boston Herald reported that a number of Massachusetts state representatives are calling upon government officials to appoint a homelessness czar in response to the high numbers of homeless youth in the state’s urban areas.

At the start of 2016, The Boston Public Health Commission reported findings of 500 homeless families, comprising nearly 1,500 individuals, living in the Boston area alone.

The effort to appoint a homelessness czar, if it were pursued, would closely mimic the steps that led to the 2014 appointment of Michael Botticelli to the role of the United State’s acting drug czar, following his tenure as the director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.

State Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Suffolk) has publicly led this call to action and was unavailable for comment.

“There should be one point-person, and I think that person should be decided among those three,” said Rep. Holmes to the Herald, referring to the secretaries of education, housing and workforce development, who comprise Gov. Charlie Baker’s Workforce Skills Cabinet, established in 2015.

Several Massachusetts lawmakers and influencers have emphasized the need for a collectivized effort to combat state-wide homelessness. As a result, many representatives have been hard at work creating programs in their municipalities that they believe would bring about positive change if implemented at a state-wide level.

Among those is State Rep. James “Jim” O’Day (D-Worcester), who, alongside U.S. Rep. Kathrine Clark (D-Melrose), sponsored House Bill 135, the first ever bill to provide “housing and support services to unaccompanied homeless youth.”

Rep. O’Day was “taken aback” by the the Herald’s story, which included his name in the “chorus of lawmakers” demanding the appointment of a homelessness czar. On the subject, O’Day said, “It’s a matter of resources. If we had all the resources in the world, then a transitioning-age-youth czar would be great. But we don’t have all the resources in the world unfortunately, and the pilot program in Worcester will be able to house 45 young people, and with that program, there will be an effort to ensure that these individuals are healthy—body, spirit and mind.”

The pilot program O’Day refers to was established in July 2016, and it took over two years of planning and petitioning to receive federal and state funds. The program is partnered with low-income housing provider SMOC, the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts.

According to O’Day, the program’s focus spans much more than the provision of secure housing. “It’s about getting them healthy, getting them on track, determining what their strengths are and moving them on to self-sufficiency,” he said.

The pilot program implements a rotating housing voucher for homeless individuals aged 18–24. The voucher remains with the program and does not accompany individuals when they depart from the rehabilitation facility.

State Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral (D-Bristol) issued the following statement on the matter: “While homeless youth may be most visible in cities, it’s a statewide challenge that state government can best address. While there are several great non-profits providing services to these young people, the state is best positioned to coordinate those services so more youth and their families can be served. These young people have enormous potential and all of us—the young people, their families, their communities and Massachusetts as a whole—benefit when that potential is realized.”

Although state representatives agree upon the necessity of state-created programs to assist the rehabilitation of homeless individuals, it’s unclear whether or not that solution includes the appointment of a homelessness czar.

Katelyn Byers is a freelance writer and Spare Change News contributor.

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