Shelters lack space as winter arrives

Photo by Trevor M/Pixabay

By Eleanor Ho
BU News Service

BOSTON – As temperatures fall and positive coronavirus cases rise, advocates raise concerns about homelessness in Massachusetts as shelters remain at reduced capacity. With outside conditions worsening, many fear that shelters will be forced to turn people away.

The Massachusetts homeless population is estimated to hover around the 18,000 people, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Though Boston has been able to accommodate most of its homeless population in the past, organizations are now struggling to provide adequate shelter and allow social distancing. 

Joe Finn, president of Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, said that state officials speculated in a recent report that homeless shelters are short a few hundred beds, leaving many communities scrambling to find space to spare.

Father Bill’s, a shelter in Quincy, built small satellite shelters at the beginning of the pandemic to limit capacity due to pandemic restrictions. Later, they transitioned to leasing hotels to make up for the capacity.

While Father Bill’s has managed to provide services necessary to keep their homeless population’s positive test rate well below state averages, the effort has already cost around $300,000, said Patrick Ronan, the shelter’s community relations and marketing manager.

While worrying about being able to provide adequate space, Ronan said that Father Bill’s is also facing the fear of guests catching the virus in shelters. The number of people sleeping outside more than tripled during the summer over fears of infection, he said. 

“We cannot go back to the days where we are packing people into a crowded shelter, putting mattresses on a floor, repurposing office space and using it as people’s bedrooms so they can sleep on the ground overnight,” Ronan said. “That’s just not a sustainable system. It’s not sustainable financially, and it’s not a humane response to homelessness.”

Pine Street Inn, another organization that provides services to the homeless in Boston, is also struggling to meet the needs of their community. Like many others across the state, the organization faced a difficult task at the beginning of the pandemic, with 36% of tests run on their guests returning positive, said Barbara Trevisan, the organization’s vice president of marketing and communications.

The main challenge now is finding enough beds to meet the homeless population’s needs this winter, Trevisan said. Pine Street Inn, she added, has been working with Boston officials to find extra space.

“So far the city has about 200 additional beds that they have found in various locations around the city to be able to take in people who need shelter,” she said.

Like Father Bill’s, Pine Street Inn has also leased a hotel to help house people experiencing homelessness. With the hospitality industry taking a hit during the pandemic, Finn said that many organizations like Father Bill’s and Pine Street Inn are turning to hotels as a safe solution to capacity problems. 

In addition to providing shelter from the elements, Finn said, providing housing for the homeless is also an important measure to help slow the rate of infection. While most people are able to stay at home to lower the risk of infection, many people experiencing homelessness do not have that luxury.

“This is a highly asymptomatic population,” Finn said. “They’re quite transitory and they are out and about and could very easily be spreading that virus.”

Finding spaces where homeless people can have privacy is also a good long-term strategy, according to Finn. These private spaces, which he calls “non-congregate housing,” give people a safer, more long-term solution than the traditional hostel-style accommodations, called congregate housing.  

“We had been saying all along that we felt that [congregate] shelters were not the best possible way of meeting the needs of homeless persons,” Finn said. “I think that the COVID outbreak really laid out how true that was. Most of the shelter providers now agree with us in the sense that they never want to go back to the way it was before because it’s just not a healthy situation or a good situation.”

Homelessness advocates also worry about the increase in evictions since the end of the state’s moratorium on Oct. 17. Just days before the act expired, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a $171 million plan to relieve pressure on tenants and landlords alike. Baker has said that he believes there are enough resources available and that another moratorium is unnecessary.

But some state representatives disagree. Bill H.5018 proposes more aid for small landlords and tenants for the next year, including new options for deferring mortgage and protections from rental debt collection. The bill is currently awaiting action from the House Committee on Rules after being referred there in early November, leaving local authorities to deal with evictions without a moratorium.

In Pittsfield, members of the Homelessness Prevention Commission have asked Mayor Linda Tyer to put $75,000 of the city’s free cash towards aid for the homeless, another strategy advocates are using to provide for the homeless.

Cutting capacity of the Barton’s Crossing shelter in half in accordance with state COVID-19 guidelines triggered a large displacement of people, City Councilor Kevin Morandi said, adding that many of Pittsfield’s homeless are living in informal housing like tent encampments at the Springside Park.

As of Dec. 1 however, Pittsfield’s parks commission has prohibited people from using the park for housing, leaving many displaced once again.

“We really have a problem and the city, and we’re not the only city that has this problem,” Morandi said. “It’s something that we should be dealing with, and … in a way that is proactive and that meets the needs of the people of the homeless population.”

Morandi hopes that the campaign to allocate $75,000 for the homeless will help push the conversation forward and keep people experiencing homelessness in the forefront of city officials’ minds as the challenge to house the homeless worsens this winter with a potential rise in evictions on the horizon.

City Life, a Boston based tenants’ rights organization that provides rental assistance, has been advocating for an extension of the state’s eviction moratorium.

According to Helen Matthews, the communications manager at City Life/Vida Urbana, tenants have been reaching out for help in staggering numbers since the end of the moratorium in October. According to Matthews, there are over 100,000 people at risk of eviction or foreclosure between renters and homeowners in the state.

“We’ve gotten thousands of calls on our hotline,” Matthews said. “In a pandemic, housing is health care. Evictions have been directly correlated to increasing infections.”

Matthew cited a UCLA report, which found that state eviction moratoriums that were allowed to expire might have led to nearly 11,000 deaths. Though the study has not been peer reviewed, the data shows the potential consequences of ending eviction moratoriums.

Without a moratorium, Matthews said, people are much more likely to be moving between residences and living in overcrowded conditions, both of which would increase the likelihood of catching the virus. 

However, some small landlords are also struggling to make ends meet without income from tenants. Jonathan Daponte, a landlord and funeral director in Fall River, said that he opposed the eviction moratorium because it restricted his rights as a landlord too much. Without the ability to hold tenants accountable for payments they could afford, Daponte said that some tenants refused to pay him anything at all.

“There was no opportunity for the tenants to even make an effort,” Daponte said. “Effectively what the government did was repurpose my housing for people who could pay, but didn’t want to pay.”

Daponte was one of the landlords who sued the state over the eviction moratorium and said that if another moratorium were to be reintroduced, he would sue the state again to avoid further losses. 

Though state representatives and senators are working on a bill to both aid tenants and provide relief to small landlords, Matthews said that the future of homelessness due to the pandemic is uncertain.

“What it really depends on is whether or not lawmakers will step up and intervene in the crisis,” Matthews said. “Ultimately, this problem is in their hands.”

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