Addressing Homelessness with a New Lens

When people look around the Cambridge/Boston area they see great universities, a thriving economy, innovation and new construction. Yet, surrounded by all of this wealth, we often lose sight of the fact that there are many in our community who are struggling. They are struggling to pay rent, put food on the table and pay their bills. Many are struggling with homelessness.

During the night between Feb. 25 and Feb. 26, 2015, Cambridge counted 464 homeless individuals citywide, most of them around Harvard Square. Single individuals experiencing homelessness made up the majority of persons counted at 73%. Of the 338 individuals counted, 32 were unsheltered and sleeping outside, 206 were in an emergency shelter and 100 were in transitional housing. Of the total count, 27% were families. A total of 50 families or 126 individuals were counted, showing 26 families in emergency shelters (65 individuals) and 24 in transitional housing (61 individuals). Cambridge showed a decrease of 87 individuals, dropping from 551 in 2014 to 464 in 2015. Of those counted, 21% were reported as suffering from serious mental illness. A total of 14% (55 individuals) were reported as being victims of domestic violence.

A significant factor contributing to the decrease in the total count was the low unsheltered count of 32 individuals due to extreme weather conditions. Specifically, the record amount of snowfall in Cambridge in the weeks leading up to the count resulted in large snowbanks and very limited accessibility to areas where people might sleep outdoors (alleys, door wells, spaces under outdoor stairwells, parks, benches, bridges, etc.). The trend in Cambridge is generally that when the unsheltered count is low, the sheltered count is high, but the trend did not continue with the 2015 count. The sheltered count for individuals was slightly lower than last year, which indicates that several unsheltered clients were not able to be found and counted in the census.

The City of Cambridge, local nonprofits and other community members concerned about homelessness have engaged in a unique process in the past year to generate fresh ideas about how to approach a complex problem. They wanted to create a community process that would help identify local priorities. The City’s Human Services Department partnered with a national organization, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, to facilitate a charrette process specific to homelessness. They gathered a diverse steering committee that met for several months to guide the process. Two community meetings were held last summer in 2015 to hone in on the primary areas of concern, followed by three full days of community sessions on specific topics, including experts from across the country. Over 100 people per day attended the sessions, and they generated a broad range of ideas.

The steering committee is in the process of sharing recommendations with city leaders, and we anticipate that the Human Services and Veterans Committee (of the city council) will sponsor a public hearing on the topic in the near future. These recommendations will become a part of the citywide planning process, known as Envision Cambridge.

The city has also received a new grant from the federal homeless assistance program that will enable us to develop a coordinated access system through local partnerships. This will create the ability for homeless individuals to receive an assessment at designated locations or a visit from a mobile outreach worker. The highest-need individuals will be prioritized for limited housing resources, and information on community resources will also be available. This streamlined approach is a need that was identified at the charrette. The Cambridge Coordinated Access Network will launch in January 2017.

Another initiative spearheaded out of my office is what I’m calling the “Metro Boston Homelessness Summit.” I will be bringing together elected officials and department heads from Cambridge, Boston, Somerville, Everett, Chelsea, Medford and Malden for a series of meetings to talk about how to better provide services for our homeless population on a regional basis. These meetings, which will begin at the end of October, will be the first opportunity for policymakers and department heads from the Metro Boston area to come together to talk as a group. We will look at current services, overlapping services and gaps in services and will then issue a plan about how we can better coordinate services.

My hope and the hope of many is that through these and other initiatives, we can better provide for the homeless in our community. We need to be focused on both short- and long-term goals to ensure that every member of our community has a safe place to call home.






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