Media Release: Brutal winter, Long Island closure meant high numbers of homeless using underfunded Mass. shelters

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

BOSTON – Massachusetts’s record setting winter stranded commuters, collapsed roofs, and created parking wars. But winter also left many of the thousands of men and women experiencing homelessness with the uncertainty of finding shelter from bitter cold and heavy snow.

Area service providers kept their doors open around the clock this winter for homeless men and women even though state funding was insufficient to cover their expenses. Providers withstood the strain of the record winter to keep people safe. The Coalition for Homeless Individuals (CHI), a network of service providers, is calling on state leaders, including Governor Baker, to increase state funding by $5.5 million to combat the root causes of homelessness so that men and women can transition into permanent supportive housing.

Homeless service providers struggled through the heaviest part of winter – January 15 to March 15 – when Boston alone saw 103 inches of snowfall:

  • The Boston Public Health Commission sheltered an average of 700 people per night at multiple sites, above the 680 beds for which it received funding.
  • Father Bill’s & MainSpring, which operates shelters in Brockton and Quincy, sheltered an average of 283 people per night, more than double the 126 beds for which it received funding.
  • Friends of the Homeless, in Springfield, averaged 170 guests each evening during the month of February, despite funding that covers only 133 beds.
  • Boston’s Pine Street Inn sheltered an average of 514 people per night between Jan. 1 and March 15, well above the 427 beds for which it received funding.

The worst nights for area shelters – Sunday, February 15 through Wednesday, February 18 – saw hundreds of men and women seeking shelter as the region cleaned up from more than two feet of new snowfall. Father Bill’s & MainSpring averaged 300 people over those four nights, while the Boston Public Health Commission averaged 755 people.

The overcrowding, compounded by more than a decade of stagnant state funding, meant that homeless service providers had to focus on 24-hour shelter and safety instead of on their priority of transitioning men and women out of homelessness. The extra money needed to cover emergency shelter takes away from the many successful vocational and permanent housing programs, which help move men and women out of homelessness. CHI members have developed more than 1,000 units of permanent supportive housing, partially through state funding.

“This brutal winter demonstrated the true cracks in our state’s system for ending homelessness,” said Lyndia Downie, President and Executive Director of Pine Street Inn. “Instead of focusing on transitioning men and women out of homelessness, our providers kept their doors open and housed men and women wherever they could to make sure that everyone was safe. But our shared mission is to not only to accommodate men and women night-to-night, but rather to take a holistic approach to ending homelessness and helping people rebuild their lives, with permanent housing, job training, medical care, and mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.”

Under the Commonwealth’s system for combating homelessness, people experiencing homelessness are classified into two groups: individuals (which includes adults and unaccompanied youth) and families. The two groups receive separate services from separate funding sources. Since 2001, the main source of funding for homeless individuals has experienced a 12 percent decline in inflation-adjusted dollars. An increase of $5.5 million – to $48.5 million – would restore funding back only to the 2001 inflation-adjusted level.

Governor Charlie Baker’s proposed budget, however, proposes an actual funding cut to the line item of $2.1 million. In a letter to Baker, CHI members have asked him to reconsider the proposed cut.

“We were encouraged to hear of your support for homeless programs throughout your campaign for Governor, a theme you repeated when you visited several of our facilities after the election,” according to the April 3 letter, signed by ten directors of service providers. “As you might imagine then, we were severely disappointed when your FY16 budget did not reflect the support you had pledged and actually cut the homeless individuals line-item by $2.1 million for the upcoming year. Never did we think, after hearing your commitment to the homeless, that your administration’s budget proposal would seek to balance the budget on the backs of those most vulnerable.”

Providers have developed effective programming that serves as a launching pad to permanent supportive housing. Coalition members offer an array of services beyond shelter, including diversion and rapid re-housing, medical care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and job training to drive a transition out of homelessness. Coalition members have also embraced the Housing First model, with many providers using their state funding to build and operate housing units – ensuring stable footing to go along with an extensive support system.

Prolonged underfunding, however, has meant that providers cannot keep pace with the number of homeless individuals in the Commonwealth. Providers across Massachusetts will be reaching out to their legislators to ask them to return funding to 2001 levels.

“It’s unthinkable that with all of the dilemmas our network of providers have faced with the closure of the Long Island shelter and the brutal winter that we had to withstand, our state leaders would consider cutting vital services for people experiencing homelessness,” said Bill Miller, Executive Director of the Springfield’s Friends of the Homeless. “We’re hopeful that our leaders recognize that they cannot balance our finances on the backs of our Commonwealth’s most vulnerable people.”