Local homeless shelters call on state for more funding

The Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

By Elise Takahama
BU News Service

BOSTON — Derek Vaughn had been living on the streets and battling heroin addiction for years when he finally found his way to a Boston shelter in 2017.

But after Vaughn, 55, stumbled upon the Boston Public Health Commission –an agency that provides health services and programs to Boston residents –he began working, taking classes and going to rehab. He now works full time at Boston Medical Center.

Vaughn is one of many people in Massachusetts who have found refuge at a local homeless shelter, and now, organizations fighting homelessness are asking the state for help so they can continue their services.

Shelter advocates are asking the Legislature to support two line items in the fiscal 2020 budget – one that would build stronger provider programs and one that would address the lack of permanent housing. Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal allocated $48.4 million for the first line item and $5 million for the second.

In fiscal 2019, shelter providers received $48.2 million through the Homeless Individuals Assistance line item and $5 million for the rapid rehousing line item.

Advocates are requesting an additional $6.6 million for the first line item, which would include programs such as shelters, street outreach, substance abuse treatment, medical care, workforce development training and job placement services, according to a statement from the Coalition for Homeless Individuals, a Massachusetts network of 40 agencies, including the Lowell Transitional Living Center and Fitchburg’s Our Father’s House.

CHI is also asking that the Legislature maintain the $5 million in funding for immediate transitional housing.

A spokesperson from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which works with Baker’s office to propose funding for Massachusetts homeless shelters, said the fiscal 2020 funding recommendation is based on a $25 per bed rate.

The DHCD recommended that the Legislature continue supporting the rapid rehousing programs that were added in the budget last year, the spokesperson said.

Kevin MacLean, director of homeless services at Our Father’s House, said a lot of the money that comes from the state helps re-house homeless families.

In the last three years, 150 homeless people in north central Massachusetts were set up with permanent housing, and 77 percent never entered homelessness again, MacLean said. Last year, Our Father’s House also provided shelter and transitional housing to about 950 individuals and families.

“There’s a lot more attention being paid to the less fortunate or disenfranchised,” he said. “And no one wants to build a new shelter or (recovery) house, but I think we’re getting more accepting of it.”

Our Father’s House usually sees about 1,000 people in and out of its services every year, MacLean said. In Fitchburg, about 400 children – 7 percent of the school system — are considered homeless, he said.

But MacLean said he doesn’t necessarily think the solution is to create more programs.

“There’s a lot of services in place,” he said. “I don’t think we need to reinvent anything. I think it’s about education and people having the proper knowledge.”

Andrew McMahon, executive director of the Lowell Transitional Living Center, also emphasized the importance of education around homelessness issues.

“There’s a lot of stigma that surrounds the condition of homelessness,” McMahon said. “But there’s a million roads that bring people to homelessness — the economy, bad luck, mental health, substance use disorders, the breakdown of families, etc. And I take it as a challenge to try and break that stigma.”

The LTLC, which provides homeless individuals with shelter, showers, laundry and food, is also seeing an increase in needs of service, McMahon said.

“You can always use more of everything,” he said. “More staff, more supplies, more everything. But the state has been really good. Everyone wants more funding, but they’ve been really good partners in this. And we’ve learned to stretch a dollar pretty well.”

Local legislators have been very attentive and helpful in the cause, McMahon said.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, who attended a recent CHI event at the Statehouse, said he strongly supports the line items and the push for greater funding. 

“I think when people think about homelessness, they’re often thinking about families, and in some ways, that’s seen as a more sympathetic group than the individuals,” Eldridge said. “But individual homelessness has exploded as well in Massachusetts. And we haven’t invested enough into the shelter system, whether in Boston or out in the district that I represent.”

One step Eldridge said he wants to take is raising taxes on the wealthy this session to fund some of programs. Lawmakers are reintroducing a revised “millionaire’s tax” to replace the ballot question struck down by the Supreme Judicial Court last year.

“Every community needs to do its part to build affordable housing,” he said. “It can’t just be a burden of Boston or Worcester or Springfield.”

He also wants to work on a housing production bill, which would include specific targets for affordable housing.

“How do we produce thousands of units of affordable housing for people who are disabled or who have mental health challenges or veterans who are living in poverty?” Eldridge said. “That’s a big goal for me this session.”

This article was previously published in the Lowell Sun.

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