[Hpn] Homeless and out of sight

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 9 May 2004 05:46:20 -0400


Boston.com / News / Boston Globe / Opinion / Editorials / Homeless and out
of sight
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Homeless and out of sight
May 9, 2004

LAST AUGUST the state was providing shelter for 1,642 families -- some 600
of them in hotels. This month there are 1,344 families and only 212 in
hotels. The falling numbers appear to be good news, but are families who
leave shelters really better off? Unfortunately, no one has a complete
answer, and the state needs to do a better job of getting one. The welfare
department keeps track of people who are currently receiving its services,
including shelter or welfare payments. Missing is a comprehensive look at
overall outcomes -- including families who sever contact with the state.
Anecdotes suggest various outcomes: Some families find apartments; others
double up with friends or relatives. The children are at the heart of this
issue. They should have a home, enough to eat, and a solid education.

Gathering data is tough work. Some families choose not to report back. The
welfare department has collected data on homeless families for only a year.
And because of budget cuts, there are fewer people to do the work. There
should be a fast, easy way -- probably an Internet site for ease of
access -- to track aspects of homelessness, understand successes, and spot
and solve problems. Health and Human Services Secretary Ronald Preston plans
to build a virtual gateway so people can apply for several programs at once.
The gateway could also be used to collect data. This would be a welcome
change from the past, when data collection was neglected.

Even without a full picture, the welfare department is acting on what it
does know. Commissioner John Wagner encourages his staff to experiment with
service improvements. One result is an early-intervention program in Lynn
that provides more help more quickly. Homeless families go to a transitional
setting where they have time to regroup. Staffers immediately help them plan
for work, children's schooling, and getting needed services such as
substance abuse counseling.

The program steers families away from hotels. Since January it has assisted
82 families. Seventeen have moved into apartments, 36 have gone to shelters,
16 moved in with friends or relatives, 11 chose not to say where they had
gone, and two families left because they failed to comply with shelter
rules. The state plans to track outcomes over time.
Wagner expects to release within a week a report on shelter access: how many
families apply for shelter and how many qualify. This should show the unmet
need of families who don't get into state-funded shelters because they earn
more than the federal poverty level -- $15,670 for a family of three.

Good data and thoughtful experiments should let the state use public dollars
as a safety net and as a sound investment that helps families recover their
independence.

 Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.