[Hpn] DOORS FOR HOMELESS

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 4 Sep 2005 08:22:42 -0400


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http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/editorials/articles/2005/09/04/doors_for_the_homeless/?page=full
Doors for the homeless
September 4, 2005

DECADES OF experience with homelessness in Massachusetts have given 
advocates and policymakers a good idea of what works and what doesn't.

What succeeds is a package: help with housing, education, jobs, overdue 
bills --and with personal demons, from drug habits to crushing financial 
debt. The best way to deliver this help is through a web of partnerships 
that stretch across communities.

What hurts is the state's chronic shortage of affordable housing. But 
communities are still finding ways to cope.

In Worcester, the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance is trying to put 
itself out of business by addressing the root causes of homelessness. 
Families who go to the alliance find two pools of help: what the agency 
offers and what Worcester as a community offers.

Prevention is stressed. This means people get help negotiating with 
landlords, navigating housing court, or paying security deposits. Elderly 
owners of vacant apartments get loans so they can renovate units and rent 
them to needy families. Elderly residents in their own homes get help with 
repairs so they can stay in them. Contractors do the work, and homeowners 
pay only for the materials.

''We stay accountable to families," says Grace Carmark, the alliance's 
executive director. She says the group relies on a strong network to fill 
the gap between incomes and housing costs.

Churches raise money. Businesses pitch in. Rotman's, the furniture company, 
backs the alliance's furniture bank, helping move items from donors' homes 
into warehouses and on to needy people. Businesses support the alliance's 
annual walk against homelessness, which this year raised $85,000. The walk 
keeps people aware of the problem and confident that there are solutions.

At Worcester's Family Health Center, homeless patients get medical treatment 
and social services. The mix works because it's less stigmatizing to seek 
help in a healthcare setting, says Dr. Linda Weinreb, the program's medical 
director and a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

One brutally common problem: More than 90 percent of homeless mothers have 
been victims of violence, Weinreb says. These families move frequently. They 
have high rates of chronic illness. And many mothers suffer from depression, 
which can harm their own and their children's ability to thrive.

Staffers at the health center help parents become well enough to manage the 
demands and stresses of poverty, because emotional and physical health makes 
it easier for mothers to buffer their children against economic instability. 
Trauma recovery is a priority. Teams help with housing, school issues, and 
transportation. Staffers focus on families' strengths where they find them: 
in parents' love for their children or their efforts to get their child good 
healthcare.

''People change when they succeed," Weinreb says, so strengthening families 
helps ensure that the benefits of healthcare will stick.

In Worcester, homeless single adults can find health care and housing help 
at the Community Healthlink program, where there's a ''no wrong door 
policy." Clients who come in for help with anything get access to 
everything, including mental and physical health services, detox programs, 
and housing help.

''No one is developing low-income housing for this population," says Larry 
Gottlieb, Healthlink's vice president of homeless and detox services, 
referring to disabled clients who live on Supplemental Security Income and 
may have only $7,200 in annual income, considerably less than the federal 
poverty level of $9,570. So, in addition to healthcare, the program uses 
money from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to help people 
find housing and pay their rent. Healthlink does outreach in shelters, and 
once people are housed, there are continuing support services that help 
people remain stable. Gottlieb says 75 to 80 percent of clients who get help 
with housing stay in their homes for a year -- a benchmark that is an 
indicator of likely long-term stability.

This kind of effort works only when people in the community are willing to 
come to the table. In Worcester they are. That's the conclusion of a recent 
report on prevention from the Boston Foundation and the Center for Social 
Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, which also notes that 
''even those politicians who could not easily be considered liberal have 
shown themselves to be ever-present in the battle against homelessness in 
Worcester."

As a smaller city, Worcester has an easier time pooling resources. By 
contrast, Boston has neighborhood success stories of helping the homeless. 
But Mayor Menino is asking his senior staff to create ''a citywide chorus of 
advocacy, effective outreach, and case management," according to Jim Greene, 
head of the city's Emergency Shelter Commission.

At the state level, meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey and the 
state's commissioners of welfare, housing, and mental health all deserve 
credit for pursuing better ways to prevent and end homelessness.

Missing are more state and federally funded vouchers, the subsidies that 
help people pay rent. These vouchers let people get a foot in the door of 
high-priced housing markets. Having the stability of a home is a key step 
toward gaining financial independence.

Massachusetts should boost prevention. The state's Residential Assistance 
for Families in Transition program, or RAFT, which helps families pay back 
rent and overdue utilities, recently got a boost, growing from $2 million to 
$5 million, a vital improvement. The RAFT program should expand further to 
cover homeless individuals. Stopping homelessness before it happens is 
cheaper than addressing it afterwards, and it works. The efforts identify 
people who probably also need long-term help climbing the workforce ladder 
so they can forgo public aid -- permanently.

People may always face or fall into homelessness. But communities could do a 
better, faster job of helping them.

 Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

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