Big Talk: Walsh functionally ends veteran homelessness, brags to Obama

This article comes courtesy of Boston Institute from Nonprofit Journalism.

“I am so proud to announce: we have ended chronic veterans’ homelessness in Boston.”

So said Mayor Marty Walsh in last week’s State of the City address, and in a follow-up tweet copying @WhiteHouse, @FLOTUS, @POTUS, and @SecretaryCastro for good measure. It’s a bold claim, and one that wasn’t fleshed out in detail in the mayor’s speech. So to clear things up, I took a look at what a so-called “functional end” means in government talk.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) defines a “functional end” as no veterans experiencing chronic homelessness, but with two exceptions: vets who have been offered housing and have yet to accept or enter it, and those who have been offered housing but instead opted for “service-intensive transitional housing.” By the city’s own measure, they’re hitting this mark. When the Boston Homes for the Brave initiative launched in 2014, there were 414 homeless veterans in the Hub. Since then, the program has housed 533 veterans. These counts are nearly impossible to verify—on paper, however, the numbers mean that Boston services at least eclipsed the rate of new vets entering the population.

Mayor Marty Walsh marty_walsh TwitterBut to simply state (or, in this case, to declare from the podium at Symphony Hall) that the city has “ended chronic veterans’ homelessness in Boston” doesn’t exactly paint an accurate picture for anyone unfamiliar with technical USICH definitions. Veterans are still entering the homeless population every day, and some homeless veterans, according to the city, have refused housing. And what does it mean that there can be a “functional end” while some vets remain in transitional housing?

“I do think his making the bold claim that they have ‘ended chronic veteran homelessness’ without also mentioning that there are still vets experiencing homelessness and in need of permanent housing, whether intentional or not, creates the misconception that literally all veterans are housed,” says Cassie Hurd of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee, an organization that aims to engage and elevate the voices of Boston’s homeless community.

While she can’t speak to the veteran population specifically, Hurd worries that such broad claims could downplay the dire conditions that Boston’s homeless communities face in general. In the throes of another icy winter, for one, there still aren’t enough beds. A representative from the Pine Street Inn recently told WBUR that winter demand was up 20 percent over the past two years, and part of the state and city’s joint relief plan involves shuttling men from one shelter to another to sleep on mats in a lobby.

The issue of homelessness will doubtlessly be tied to the legacy of the mayor’s first years in office, and it’s no surprise that Walsh wants to spin the story. It will be hard for many Bostonians, especially housing advocates and those on the street, to forget the sudden closing of the Long Island Bridge in the autumn before the ferocious blizzards of 2015. Admission of the problem and the devotion of resources should obviously be applauded. But it’s perhaps too soon to call—or should I say, tweet at—the White House.


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