Mass. Housing and Shelter Alliance Selected as Finalist for Hearst Health Prize

The Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (MHSA) is one of three finalists for the 2018 Hearst Health Prize in Population Management. The Hearst Health Prize, distributed by Hearst in partnership with Jefferson College of Population Health, is a program that recognizes individuals for significantly improving health in the U.S.

According to the Jefferson College of Population Health website, the winner will be announced on March 20 at the Population Health Colloquium. The winner will receive a $100,000 cash prize, and each of the other finalists will be given $25,000.

The application guidelines on the Jefferson College website state that the competition is open to organizations, individuals, and institutions who have created programs to manage or improve the health of a population. The rules specify that no program can participate again after being previously recognized as a finalist or Honorable Mention. Joe Finn, the President and Executive Director of the MHSA, said that it was the first time the MHSA had applied for this prize.

“We always knew it was around, but one of our partners from the Corporation for Supportive Housing had really encouraged us to get engaged,” he said. “I’m excited for the recognition–if we’re ever going to have integrated healthcare, the key component is that someone has a safe place to live. We’re excited because this is basically a health award to a health entity that says, we think this is the right thing to do.”

Finn said that he was one of the first participators in Home and Healthy for Good, the program which was selected for the Hearst Health Prize. He said that when he first began working at the MHSA in 2003, there were no programs checking the costs and benefits of housing in Massachusetts.

“But when we started developing this program, we caught the imagination of the legislatures up at the state house,” he said. “So we agreed to report back to the Department of Housing and Community Development with our results, and we’ve been doing that for some time. We started off by receiving a $600,000 budget, and now it’s increased to over two million dollars.”

Finn went further to clarify that the MHSA is not a provider of direct housing, but takes on the intermediary role of bringing agencies together committed to an evidence-based approach. He said that the organization gathers members together to implement the Housing First program and receive state funds. According to Finn, before the MHSA appeared most of the programs in Massachusetts were Housing Compliance instead.

“Housing First is a whole different approach,” he said. “It implements what we call low-threshold practices of housing. It really takes the focus off of clinical outcomes, like ‘you gotta be clean and sober, you gotta take your meds for housing.’ Our program is more focused on what we can do to make you a successful tenant.”

Finn said that it took some time to educate the staff and help them realize that this was possible. However, he said that once the Housing First program was in process the staff found it far more effective because they could work with clients for a longer time.

“The model was more difficult to implement, but it was far more effective,” Finn said. “The number of chronic homelessness dropped well over by half, and we’re hoping this becomes a national movement.”

Finn explained that there are still some people who do not accept the concept of low-pressure housing. However, he emphasized that the point of MHSA was not for these housing programs to replace other recovery programs or sober-based programs.  He said that they wanted to replace people from sleeping on the streets, and provide a dry house where they did not have to engage in drugs or drinking.

Finn said that if the MHSA received the Hearst Health Prize, the award would probably be used for general operating funds. He explained that the funds were crucial because they provided additional resources and assisted their members’ agencies to continue working.

“Home and Healthy for Good is removing barriers to housing right now,” he said. “I have seen the quality of lives improve dramatically through our program. I hope we can continue to raise awareness for the importance of housing.”