MA HOMELESS response Balkanized by stakeholders' conflicting aims

Tom Boland (
Thu, 30 Dec 1999 22:44:28 -0800 (PST)
FWD  Boston Globe editorial - December 27, 1999 - page A18


       From people asleep in doorways to the Worcester warehouse fire,
homelessness plagues Massachusetts.

The tragedy in Worcester highlighted the problem of homeless youth. Charged
with involuntary manslaughter because the fire took the lives of six
firemen, 19-year-old Julie Barnes is, sadly, only one of 2,300 adults ages
18 through 24 who entered emergency shelters in 1999, according to the
Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

Massachusetts spends $123 million on homelessness services - more than most
states - but the homeless population keeps growing. Researchers at the
University of Massachusetts estimate that in 1997, the state had 10,000
homeless families and 22,000 homeless individuals.

This makes surrender, or triage, tempting: settling for helping some people
out of homelessness and just making the rest more comfortable. Fortunately,
Massachusetts has the resources to do much more.

A candid report on homelessness issued this month by the Executive Office
for Administration and Finance serves as an insightful blueprint. Calmly
airing the administration's own dirty laundry, the report describes
unsolved problems, disputes between state agencies, and a lack of planning
and data. But for every problem, the report suggests immediate and
long-term solutions.

One obvious cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. The
report suggests studying ways to increase the supply of affordable units as
well as a shift in strategy: Instead of expanding the emergency shelter
system, it recommends investing in prevention.

Prevention, however, is a disputed issue. Two agencies with clashing
philosophies control the Homeless Intercept Program, which tries to keep
families in housing. The Department of Housing and Community Development
thinks more energy should go to keeping families in the housing they
already have. Faced with homeless families in costly hotels, the Department
of Transitional Assistance favors spending resources on housing searches.
The DTA worries in part that families, instead of budgeting carefully, will
spend on other things, knowing they can fall back on rental benefits.

Playing Solomon, the report advises a reevaluation of housing search
services. And it points out that prevention is effective and cheaper.
Housing a family in a shelter for 131 days - the average stay - costs more
than $14,000 versus an average of $1,000 to keep a family in housing they
already have or help them move into affordable housing.

The report also points to the needs of homeless individuals. Helping
families can be politically popular because it means helping children. It
can be hard to  care about the toughest individual cases: an ex-offender
with a substance abuse problem and no place to go or someone who is
''dually diagnosed'' as being mentally ill and a substance abuser. Great
advances, however, can be made with this population, too.

Individuals face a particular kind of housing shortage: the loss, from 1965
to 1985, of 96 percent of the state's single-room occupancy units. This
shortage challenges state government to think carefully about how it can
meet existing needs. The state's initiative for the homeless mentally ill
can serve as a model. The program mixes appropriate housing and case
management services.

Poor discharge planning is another problem. Many people end up homeless
after falling out of prisons, detox and mental health programs, foster
care, and other state facilities. Shelters do their best but often aren't
equipped to deal with mental illness and other complex problems.

The best solution may well be the interagency task force recommended by the
report. The task force is already being formed. If state agencies
communicated better, homeless people would get better services.

The panel will include representatives from the state's Youth, Social
Services, Public Health, Mental Retardation, and Housing departments.
They'll work with a system at the University of Massachusetts to collect
information on homelessness.

Ultimately the state's goal is lofty but attainable: End homelessness.
Working in the tradition of the slavery abolitionists who faced a seemingly
impossible task, Massachusetts can draw on its strengths and an honest
appraisal of its weaknesses to ensure that all its citizens at least have a
place to live.

[This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 12/27/1999.]


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
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