Boston: all-time high homeless

Agent Smiley (smiley_777@hotmail.com)
Tue, 02 Feb 1999 08:56:40 PST


New wave of homeless follows boom times

by Scott Farmelant

Sunday, January 31, 1999

On the night President Clinton gave a State of the
Union address touting the strongest economy in
American history, ``Natalie,创 35, entered a
homeless shelter for the first time.
Natalie, who had been sleeping in her car in the
South End since September, went to Rosie's Place
because she was unemployed, broke and had nowhere
else to turn.

She is one of an estimated 24,000 people in
Massachusetts, including 5,300 Boston residents,
whom advocates say will be homeless for at least
part of 1999.

If projections hold, Massachusetts will set an
all-time high for homelessness in 1999 despite a
booming economy and near-record low unemployment.

Indeed, economists and advocates blame the
white-hot economy for the surge, claiming higher
incomes lead to apartment rents that are
unaffordable for many of the working poor.

While people who suffer from mental illness or
alcoholism account for roughly 40 percent of those
living on the streets or in shelters, housing
advocates say the fastest-growing homeless
population today are families headed by single
mothers.

And some warn that the crisis, which already has
claimed seven lives in the Boston area this
winter, will become even more dire when 5,100
families lose state welfare benefits in the coming
months.

``Working mothers and their children who are
doubling up with relatives, sleeping on floors,
staying in cars, they磖e the invisible majority of
the homeless创 population,said Peter Cullinane,
executive director with the Massachusetts
Coalition for the Homeless.

Census results show that the state's homeless
population has more than doubled since 1990, but
state officials admit they don't know exactly how
many homeless families live in Massachusetts.
Based on shelter visits, however, experts estimate
that thousands - including upward of 20,000
children - lack permanent residence.

Elizabeth Wilson, 30, a mother of four who works
full time at Community Servings, a Roxbury-based
meals program for people with HIV and AIDS, lost
her $675-a-month, two-bedroom Dorchester apartment
in 1997.

Wilson then spent a year sleeping with her
children on a pullout couch in her mother's home.
Later, she moved into the St. Ambrose Family Inn,
a Catholic Charities shelter in Dorchester because
her income disqualified her from occupying any of
the state's 850 family shelter units.

Under Massachusetts law, only parents with one
child who earn less than $825.10 a month can stay
in family shelters. For parents with two children,
the cutoff is $997.10 a month.

Wilson, who has has a Section 8 housing
certificate worth $950, hasn't found an affordable
apartment despite a four-month search.

``Most landlords are asking $1,500 for a
three-bedroom, and they磖e not de-leaded,创 Wilson
said. ``I work hard and I just want an affordable
place for my kids, but it looks like we磍l end up
in the projects.创

A recent Herald report found two-bedroom
apartments in Boston renting for between $1,000
and $1,500. Housing advocates warn the combination
of high rents and welfare cuts will lead to
disastrous consequences.

``People cut off from welfare are at risk because
they haven磘 worked in several years or have never
worked,创 said Sister Margaret Leonard of Project
Hope. ``Many of these people will become
homeless.创

State officials acknowledge that 44,000 families
lost benefits after the Welfare Reform Act went
into effect three years ago. But they dismiss any
connection between welfare cuts and homelessness
as the ``familiar war cry创 of liberals.

Advocates ``are once again crying that there will
be a surge in homelessness because of welfare
cuts, and we doubt it very much,创 said Dick
Powers, a spokesman for the state磗 Department of
Transistional Assistance. ``The fact is that
people (on welfare) should show more individual
responsibility.创

Others, however, say cuts can only add to the
homeless problem.

``Households that have small incomes and larger
families are most vulnerable to losing their home,
especially families on welfare,创 said Donna Haig
Friedman, director of the McCormack Institute磗
Center for Social Policy at UMass-Boston.

Experts acknowledge that current economic forces
won't help blue-collar families or those headed by
single-mothers deal with rising housing costs.

``The job market is driven largely by technology,
and low-skilled people are unable to compete,创
said Peter Gottschalk, a professor of economics at
Boston College. ``As a result, people with limited
skills and education are experiencing a real loss
in earnings.创

As the number of homeless families grows, so too
does the volume of traditionally homeless people,
according to a 1998 study by the Massachusetts
Housing and Shelter Alliance.

Beyond alcholics and the mentally ill, census
figures also show an increasing number of children
who are released from foster care and ex-convicts
entering shelters shortly after leaving prison.
Rising demand is straining the state's shelter
system, especially facilities in Boston.

According to the housing alliance study, every one
of the state's 4,185 shelter beds was filled on a
nightly basis in 1998, with an average overflow of
125 people a night.

Housing alliance figures reveal that bed demand at
Boston emergency shelters exceeded supply 359 days
in 1998, while nonemergency shelters experienced
the same problem 300 days.

The shelter crunch forces providers to make do
with less.

``We have 280 beds for men, but we磛e had an
average of 350 guests per night since August,创
said Erik Butler, president of the Pine Street
Inn, New England磗 largest shelter. ``In practical
terms, we will spend all of our budget by April 1
for a fiscal year that ends June 30.创

Providers such as Butler and Greiff also say the
increasing number of criminals and juvenile
delinquents entering shelters taxes a system that
also attempts to provide job training and
permanent housing for the homeless.

For example, 1,111 ex-convicts went straight from
prison or jail to shelters in 1998, according to
housing alliance statistics, up 17 percent from
1997. In addition, 1,278 people between the ages
of 18 and 24 became homeless - including many
teens released from Department of Youth Services
custody or former foster children - entered
shelters, accounting for a 34 percent jump since
1997.

Advocates argue the large number of ex-criminals
living in shelters poses a public-safety hazard
because those facilities only receive funding for
12 hours of operation and must force guests to
spend their days on the street.

``I walked around for two weeks and I didn磘 know
where to go or what to do before I came here,创
said ``Tunnel Rat创 Williams, 48, who was released
in early January after serving 10 years for
manslaughter. He is now staying at the New England
Shelter for Homeless Veterans.

Williams said state officials gave him $50 and
drove him to a train upon his release from the
Norfolk Correctional Institute, but did not help
him plan his future.

Tony Carnevale, spokesman for the Department of
Corrections, said prison officials don't refer
former inmates to shelters. He also noted that a
new five-day release program is given to all
convicts before their parole or release.

As problems mount, a recent Housing and Urban
Development report indicates needs are surging
beyond Boston. On Dec. 23, the agency allocated
$33.5 million for statewide homeless grants but
cut Boston's share by $5.5 million, or nearly 40
percent. HUD officials said the Boston reductions
occurred because more communities such as
Worcester, Cambridge and Somerville requested
funds.

``More than likely, the shift in funding shows
that homeless demands are growing across
Massachusetts,创 said Jaqueline Roundtree, a HUD
spokeswoman.

And advocates warn homelessness will continue to
grow, especially now that the U.S. Department of
Housing and Urban Development is allowing
landlords to replace subsidized tenants with
market-rate renters. The probable reduction of
subsidized housing comes on the heels of a HUD
study that identified 18,000 Boston households
that spend 50 percent or more of their pretax
income on housing.

Addressing those underlying housing and economic
issues, activists say, is key to solving the
problem.

``We need a long-term plan to stabilize these
people, not to stack them up like cords of wood in
church basements and shelters,创 said Jim Stewart,
director of the First Church Shelter in Cambridge.



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