The closure of two successful transitional housing programs in Boston has created an urgent need for the 40 people who live there, but according to recent testimony at a Boston City Council Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery hearing, this situation didn’t have to be an emergency.
After prodding by Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, members of the Boston Public Health Commission said they’ve known since spring 2016 that the programs were going to be slashed but didn’t inform the residents of SOAR and Safe Harbor of the change until March 2017. The two programs, located at the 112 Southampton St. Shelter, house 40 clients on the second floor of the building in transitional housing beds. There’s an emergency shelter downstairs.
Jackson asked members of the Boston Public Health Commission why more hasn’t been done to place clients in homes ahead of the closure of the programs. “I guess the question I have is that if you’ve known for a year, why hasn’t the city gotten permanent housing for the individuals who are there?” he said.
Commission members noted that clients will still have access to the emergency shelter and that those in the workforce development program will be paid minimum wage during training. Once they’re placed in permanent housing, they will continue to receive counseling services and will be eligible for up to $4,000 in cash assistance—an amount Jackson says is inadequate for people looking for a place to live in a city as expensive as Boston.
“We’re in boston. So you’re saying first, last and security and then they’re on their own to be able to pay monthly rent in the city of Boston?”
Jackson added that placing people in a home that they’re not financially equipped to maintain could put people right back where they started.
“To toss people who are in this position into the market rate in the city of Boston, I don’t think is a real transition. I don’t think you’re going to stabilize people. It actually puts people in a situation where they’re probably heading [back to being homeless].” He also noted that he believes this crisis could have been avoided had the Boston Public Health Commission told clients about the change when they found out about it.
Clients in the transitional programs have access to their own beds 24 hours a day, in addition to having a locker and a foot locker. While clients will still have access to the emergency shelter, they’ll have to leave from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. According to testimony at the hearing, having to vacate the premises from early morning to early afternoon will disrupt the lives of clients who work late or who have an illness that makes them tired in the middle of the day.
Transitional housing is no longer recognized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a “best practice,” and transitional programs have been defunded over the years in favor of rapid-rehousing programs, which focus on placing people in permanent housing as quickly as possible.
Safe Harbor resident Edwin Torres said that for some people, such as himself, being placed in permanent housing as fast as the program can manage will only make his life more difficult. “How do I go from the streets to a shelter that is full of drugs to housing when … I’m not even prepared to run my own house,” Torres said. “This bridge helps us addicts build a foundation to land that housing.”
Torres also warned of the potential for relapse and other problems that could crop up if he’s rushed into a situation for which he’s not ready.
“Throwing us out on the street, especially the HIV community, if I relapse—and I hope to God I don’t—I’m going to be sharing syringes in the community. And you think I’m going to care to tell somebody that I’m HIV positive? No. So this disease could multiply.”
JoAnn Coull testified that Safe Harbor allowed her to put her life back together and reiterated Torres’s point that holding down an apartment is a huge burden for a person who’s in recovery and managing a chronic illness.
“I lived there for 15 months, which meant I didn’t have to carry all my medications, paperwork, clothing and everything I own with me when I went out. I went out every day … to go to doctor’s appointments, recovery meetings and to build a foundation and a new life without drugs and alcohol,” Coull said. “Yes, stable housing is always the ultimate goal. However, there’s lots of things that need to be put back together first. Stabilizing HIV medications so that we’re viral suppressed and not actually spreading the virus. Regular eating habits, making doctor’s appointments and mental health appointments.”
The rapid rehousing programs are scheduled to be fully implemented by July 1, 2017.