Pandemic served new lessons on caring for the homeless

An abandoned tent is a common site at homeless encampments during the winter months. The nonprofit Clean River Project has spent most of December cleaning up these sites. PHOTO COURTESY OF CLEAN RIVER PROJECT


BOSTON – A group of shelter, health care, and emergency services providers for people experiencing homelessness is asking the state to level fund their services in the upcoming fiscal 2022 budget.

The Coalition for Homeless Individuals gathered legislators and advocates on Wednesday morning to press for continued funding that they say is crucial to helping shelters provide roofs over people’s heads and care during the pandemic.

John Yazwinski, CEO of Brockton’s Father Bill’s and Mainspring, said one line item — funded at $56.4 million in the final fiscal 2021 budget — accounts for 65 percent of costs for shelters, supportive housing, health care, and job training services across the state. Gov. Charlie Baker’s fiscal 2022 budget funds that line item at $53.3 million which is consistent with what the governor proposed in his original fiscal 2021 budget.

The funding supports 40 organizations contracted with the state to provide services to individuals experiencing homelessness, the coalition said. Yazwinski said organizations are leveraging private and community resources “to make sure that we get everybody indoors that needs an emergency shelter bed.”

“How our shelters have responded to the COVID pandemic, it’s been tremendous, this was like building a plane that was flying and the instructions flew out the window,” he said. “We are prepared for winter storms. We are prepared to lose power and electricity for days and weeks but nobody, nobody was prepared for a pandemic.”

In a pre-recorded video played at the briefing, Housing Committee Co-Chair Rep. James Arciero said he looked forward to working with the coalition to address homelessness, housing production, housing retention, and rental assistance.

“Given the impact of the year-long pandemic on our state’s economy, revenues, workforce and schools, we are facing unprecedented challenges,” the Westford Democrat said. “We will be seeking both federal and state funding to ensure that the critical resources continue to reach and help our most vulnerable populations.”

As of January 2019, Massachusetts had over 18,000 people experiencing homelessness, according to federal data, and of that total, 3,766 were families, over 900 were Veterans, and nearly 500 were unaccompanied young adults.

Throughout the pandemic, shelters and municipalities have had to safely care for people experiencing homelessness while limiting the spread of the virus. Organizations across the state provided PPE, testing, isolation and quarantine spaces, and COVID-19 treatment to people experiencing homelessness while maintaining federal guidelines.

Shelter providers sounded the alarm early on: at the outset of the outbreak advocates, legislators, and shelter operators expressed concerns that should the virus spread among the homeless populations, it could have inflicted serious harm.

The coalition is also seeking to keep another line item that supports the transition of people experiencing homeless into permanent housing funded at $5 million. Baker proposed funding that line item in his original fiscal 2021 budget and proposed fiscal 2022 budget at $4.8 million. The line item was funded at $5 million in the enacted versions of the FY 20 and FY 21 budgets.

Yazwinski said shelter providers were able to lease additional spaces during the pandemic like hotels, tents, dorms, and field houses to help spread people out and curb the transmission of the virus.

“This brought our infection rates across the state to under 2 percent,” he said. “This has also brought us to the conclusion that shelters should never go back to the way they were: overflowed, people sleeping on our floors, not just in the winter, but all year long. We cannot return to these crowded shelters and we need to find a way to use this experience to move people experiencing homelessness into housing more quickly.”

For example, Yazwinski said, shelter providers and municipalities should look at underutilized properties as a way to depopulate spaces. Father Bill’s and Mainspring has been working with the city of Brockton and the state to purchase a motel that “would have been sitting vacant for many months.”

“Our hope is to convert it into permanent supportive housing,” he said. “You just add a kitchenette and it’s a perfect response to be an efficient apartment for a person. They can be home immediately. ”

Published by