Shelters Shouldn’t Do the State’s job

When I read that Pine Street Inn was planning to create 140 units of housing by putting up a five to six story building in Jamaica Plain I nearly fell over, and not from joy. For years I’ve been a staunch believer that shelter agencies, including Pine Street Inn, should not double as landlords. Why? Because emergency shelters, which is what Pine Street Inn started out as, are supposed to be just that: emergency shelters.

Now before everyone gets all up in their feelings about this being another of my tireless rants against Pine Street — no, it’s not. I have my issues with them, but housing the homeless isn’t one of them. However, emergency shelters shouldn’t have to be the ones leading these efforts. It takes the burden away from the people who should be out front dealing with this problem: the state. By outsourcing the homeless problem to the shelter system, it let’s them of the hook.

Many of my fellow advocates don’t see it that way. They also can’t see that by allowing shelter agencies to become de facto landlords you’re keeping people tied to a system that many of us want out of. By allowing this to continue, it keeps shelters in control of people’s lives. You just put a  pretty bow on it and call it supportive housing.

Some advocates call shelters warehousing for poor people, and these housing efforts make that phrase a literal one. It’s bad enough that homeless people are already at the mercy of housing agencies. Will they now have to deal with their case managers from the shelter as their landlord? I know that seems extreme, but it’s reality if you think about it.

Now I know it’s called supportive housing. If that’s really the case then why not have an independent housing board appointed by the state or city made up of healthcare providers, case managers and formerly homeless people? This board would be separate from shelter agencies. Let this board work with landlords to get people into real housing. And then the state could work on suitable housing for those that don’t need support. How hard can that be? And now that rent control is actually being talked about again, maybe we can find a real solution that benefits everybody.

I know, it’s too easy for opponents to ask things like, “where would we get the money from?” It’s easier for everybody if things keep going the way they are, if the politicians keep throwing large sums of money to the shelter system and let them continue to solve the homeless crisis by posing as landlords. Can’t wait for the ribbon cutting ceremony in JP when Pine Street Inn opens their shiny new building and watch our local politicians pat themselves on the back for warehousing more poor people.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.