Panel discusses Boston’s efforts to house the chronically homeless

Before he had a home, Eric Lepovetsky would spend his nights in his “nylon condo” — that is, a tent in a wooded area of a park — staying out of sight from strangers and drinking himself to sleep.

“Although I have fears that are real — attacks by humans, animals bugs — my greatest fear is that I will never leave this place,” said Lepovetsky, reading from an essay he penned about his years experiencing homelessness to the audience at WBUR’s new Cityspace auditorium. His voice got shakey near the end of the story, and the crowd stood and applauded him after he finished.

Lepovetsky, a former paramedic who went unhoused for years, was taking part in a panel on homelessness in Boston, co-hosted by local NPR station WBUR and Pine Street Inn, one of the Hub’s biggest and most visible shelters which is turning 50 years old this year.

Lepovetsky appeared alongside Pine Street’s executive director Lyndia Downie, case manager Cecilia Otang, and Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh and his special adviser on ending homelessness,  Laila Bernstein. The group Shelter Music Boston, which hosts classical music concerts at homeless shelters, also opened and closed the event.

Moderator started the conversation by noting that despite improvements to the homelessness situation, Boston didn’t achieve its goal of ending chronic individual homelessness by 2018. Chronically homeless individuals are people with a disabling condition who experience homelessness for a full year.

“We have a manageable problem, I wish we didn’t have any problem,” said Downie about the city’s homelessness numbers. Downie noted that in the last homeless census they saw 163 people on the streets, or three percent of the homeless population, while in San Francisco, there are thousands of people who choose to sleep outside. “We can make headway if we keep our eyes on the prize and we keep working towards more supportive housing and more low barrier housing.”

Walsh noted that the system operated differently today than it did in 2014, emphasizing coordination among service providers throughout the city.

One major difference is “having all the providers in the same room with the city talking about how do we work on this issue and accomplish some successes,” he said. The city placed a new emphasis on housing its shelter guests and services clients, viewing them as “housing opportunities,” in the mayor’s words. The city has housed over 1,600 people since adopting their new practices.

The city has also adopted a housing first model that prioritizes finding homes for people experiencing homelessness, rather than sheltering them.

“Housing first is really a philosophy where people get housed and then you work on all the things that led to their homelessness once their housed,” said Downie. “You get people stable and then you start to work with them.” Pine Street Inn has also been morphing from a  shelter provider into a housing provider, with an ambitious plan to create a 225 unit housing complex in Jamaica Plain.

The panel also emphasized the importance of permanent supportive housing, housing that provides access to specific services a client may need. In addition to municipal efforts to increase supportive housing, Walsh also set up a private fund to raise money to build 200 units.

Bernstein noted that permanent supportive housing varies: it may be located in private developments or may be provided by nonprofits like Pine Street and sometimes case workers may visit the tenants or they have to travel themselves.

Otang, speaking about her work with Hearth, said that case managers need to love their job, because their clients may require a lot of handholding and patience — especially if they struggle with addiction and relapse.

Otang also noted that credit history and housing history were common barriers to housing, with landlords more likely to turn down potential tenants with troubled records.

But housing works, she said, as long as you’re persistent. Speaking about one client who is struggling to maintain sobriety and housing, she said the program will work “As long as we don’t give up on her and she doesn’t give up on herself.”

During the panel, Walsh also reiterated his plans to reopen Long Island as a recovery services campus, but would keep emergency shelter services on Boston’s mainland. In 2014, Long Island was the location of the city’s largest homeless shelter and a dozen recovery services. The campus was closed after the mayor ordered the bridge — the only route of access to the island — closed due to its state of disrepair. One audience member questioned the mayor’s assurance that the bridge will be reopened, noting that Quincy hasn’t yet approved of the measure. (While Long Island is owned by Boston, the bridge would connect to Quincy).

“It’s feasible because we had a bridge there for 65 years,” said Walsh. “At the end of the day, the folks that will be treated on Long Island — we’re not building a bridge for Boston, we’re building a bridge for everyone and we’re building a bridge to recovery.”

One audience member asked how people can help the homeless. The panel suggested donating furniture, engaging them in conversation, and, if you’re a landlord, renting to a homeless tenant.

“Most of them just want eye contact, most of them just want a nod, to know that they exist,” said Lepovetsky, who also encouraged the audience to donate to reputable programs.
A video of the event can be found at https://www.wbur.org/events/451125/tackling-homelessness-in-boston.

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