Legislators, advocates urge state to improve shelter system for homeless

The Massachusetts State House
The Massachusetts State House. Oct. 9, 2021. (Photo by Mild Laohapoonrungsee / BU News Service)

By Claudia Chiappa
Boston University Statehouse Program

NORTHAMPTON — As the second winter in a global pandemic approaches, advocates in western Massachusetts are fighting to ensure some of the lessons learned last year about sheltering systems for homeless populations live on.

At the forefront of these changes is the use of non-congregate settings as shelter spaces and extended operational hours for shelters.

“Those two things need to continue post-pandemic because they transcend the public health crisis and the pandemic and really should define our response to the public health crisis of homelessness,” said Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.

The organization works across Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties to prevent and end homelessness with a “housing first” approach. But it has not been alone in its fight.

This month, a coalition of 23 western Massachusetts legislators sent a letter to the state Department of Housing and Community Development urging it to permanently adapt some of the lessons highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To meet the challenges of social distancing and to curb the spread of the virus, western Massachusetts expanded non-congregate settings — locations with some level of privacy, such as vacant hotel rooms.

“It’s the important value of four walls, some level of privacy, and bathroom access, etc… that makes a difference in all of our lives and certainly in people who are experiencing such traumatic situations as homelessness,” Schwartz said.

On top of reducing the risk of spreading deadly infections, non-congregate settings bear other advantages. For example, experts say these types of settings make rehousing quicker. In western Massachusetts, from July 1, 2020 to Sept. 30 of this year, 52% of the people residing in non-congregate sites found permanent housing, compared with a rate of 16% of those in congregate sites, according to a Hampden County Continuum of Care analysis.

“We heard repeatedly the stories of our residents who were previously unable to enter congregate shelter due to various mental health and substance use challenges but were able to accept the offer of a non-congregate site,” the legislators wrote. “We also heard about their increasing stability and resulting engagement with case management that resulted in permanent re-housing.”

Non-congregate shelters also offer solutions for people who, for a variety of reasons and factors, might not feel comfortable in large congregate settings. They represent a more feasible solution for families, for example.

“You have a number of people who do look to go into shelters, but then you also have a number of people who are very shelter-adverse. They don’t want to live in a congregate setting,” said Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton. “The key message was that congregate shelters as we’ve seen in the past just really aren’t working for our area.”

Legislators are now urging the use of non-congregate shelters to become a permanent solution. A bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, seeks to incrementally reduce and eventually end the use of congregate shelters.

Shelter hours

In addition, the model proposed by the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness and the legislators stresses the importance of extending shelter hours. Before the pandemic, many operated on a seasonal basis and often required the population to leave by morning. The new models urge the need for shelters that operate 24/7 year-round.

“It’s still very cold during the day, and people are out there on park benches or in public spaces or in unsafe places,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow. “So, you know, this is really like a kind of clarion call.”

“This public health emergency for all of us — not just the most vulnerable — exposed the illogic and inhumanity of such an arrangement,” the legislators wrote. “Warmer weather should not be a reason people are required to sleep on the street.”

But changes for the new model do not stop here. In order for the system to be successful, the state must ensure sufficient funding for staffers and an equitable distribution of resources, according to advocates.

Schwartz said it is imperative to support shelter staff, both financially and with the proper training. This includes educating them on “trauma-informed care and harm reduction, nonviolent communication, motivational interviewing and racial and ethnic sensitivity.” These are all critical skills that allow staff to support the homeless populations.

It then becomes key to ensure that staffers are paid a livable wage.

“You can’t run a shelter without people to staff the shelter,” Schwartz said. “And you can’t staff the shelter sufficiently, with enough consistency, with a level of care we’re all seeking, without paying a livable wage.”

Sabadosa and Lesser both agreed that paying staffers a livable wage is “critical” if  the model is to succeed. Supporting employees financially will help shelters avoid burnouts and it will help retain their staff.

“Paying livable wages is going to be key because you’re asking staff to work in very complex situations,” Sabadosa said. “We shouldn’t be opening shelters if we’re going to pay people minimum wage or just barely above it, because this requires skill and training, and you don’t get that for minimum wage.”

While the model would apply statewide, the letter urges the Department of Housing and Community Development to commit to ensure a more equitable distribution of funds. Right now, the state is allocating fewer resources to western areas than to its eastern counterparts, and many communities in the western part of the state are struggling to keep up.

“I think that sometimes it’s easy for people to forget that there are people living on the streets here, or camping in the woods,” Sabadosa said. “This problem is not just a city problem. It’s not just an eastern Mass. problem. And it has to be resolved for the whole state and you have to offer services across the state.”

An inequitable distribution of funds is caused by structural issues within the state.

Despite sheltering 13% of the state’s total individual homeless population, western Massachusetts receives only 7% of the state’s shelter funds, according to a 2013 analysis by the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. Lesser said that this is caused by “decades-old” formulas and earmarks, which do not properly serve western Massachusetts anymore.

“The letter is really about properly funding the services, properly funding “housing first” and make sure that there is equity between eastern Mass. and western Mass. and how these programs are funded,” Lesser said. “There needs to be dedicated focus on the communities of the regions that have been the hardest hit by COVID and who have seen the least stability to bounce back after COVID.”

The state’s American Rescue Plan Act budget, currently awaiting approval by lawmakers, provides an “unprecedented opportunity” to address these issues, Schwartz said. The ARPA budget allocates over $600 million for affordable housing and to address homelessness.

“The truth is, it’s a fraction of what we need to adequately address this crisis of homelessness and lack of affordable housing,” Schwartz said. “But it’s a significant drop in the bucket.”

The Senate and House have each approved their own version of the spending plan for the $3.82 billion in federal pandemic relief funds. While many were hopeful the lawmakers could reach a compromise before the end of the legislative session, the state will now have to wait until the new year to see how the long-awaited money is allocated.

“We need to make it happen with incredible purpose and urgency,” Schwartz said. “We have a chance to end homelessness for hundreds of people across the state and dozens in our region.”

This article originally appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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