Column: Western Mass. Embraces Challenge to Reduce Homelessness
At a time when many of us are planning to celebrate our annual Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, an unprecedented number of our neighbors and fellow citizens will be spending the holiday in emergency shelters or out in the cold.
In Massachusetts, over 3,000 families are homeless, the highest count ever. With shelters full to capacity, over 1,000 of these homeless families are living in motels across the state, costing the commonwealth over $3 million each month. Right here in Western Massachusetts, there are 519 homeless families, with another 20 to 30 projected to become homeless each week.
Some of this can be explained by our current economic condition. Job loss and foreclosure are putting more households at risk, and despite best efforts these pressures are not likely to disappear anytime soon. The good news, however, is that a change in approach to the problem, as well as resources to support it, provide the promise of long-term solutions.
The change is called Housing First, which proposes what it sounds like: preserve or provide housing first, with the appropriate support services to go with it, to effectively reduce the number of homeless families and individuals. Housing First aligns well with Berkshire County's long-standing approach to ending homelessness, which focuses on programming that promotes early intervention and prevention initiatives. The new approach is also in sharp contrast to the old bureaucracies, built up over a 25 year period, which unintentionally drove at-risk households to shelters as the quickest resource for housing and social service support.
The Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, one of 10 regional networks funded by the commonwealth, is helping spearhead the change to a Housing First approach in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties. The Network includes dozens of service providers, municipalities, state agencies and the Western Division Housing Court; it offers a foundation for the collaboration that is necessary to maximize resources and discover best practices for greater success.
Here in Berkshire County, the Berkshire Leadership Council to End Homelessness, comprised of a cross section of community stakeholders including: business and banking entities, neighborhood groups, faith based organizations, local and state government officials, health-care organizations, private and public housing organizations, and human service providers has offered support and leadership in the formation of the Network.
With a pool of local, state, and federal funding and some additional funding support from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, service providers across the four western counties are looking to engage families and individuals before they become homeless, and provide them with the assistance they need to prevent their homelessness. This strategy includes assistance such as payment of rent arrears, mediation to maintain an existing tenancy, or financial assistance to move quickly to a new tenancy.
Key to this strategy's success is targeting the funds to those most at risk of actually becoming homeless. Surely many households in today's economy who would be helped by an extra $1,000 paid toward housing costs, but most families — even most families living in poverty — do not become homeless. Instead, they rely on the informal support of family or friends, and look to boost income and reduce expenses wherever possible. The Network's goal, in partnership with service providers, is to ensure that limited resources are used to help the most at-risk families avoid homelessness.
The combination of homelessness prevention, Housing First, effective targeting of resources and use of good data to plan and assess progress has already shown results in other communities. In Columbus, Ohio, family homelessness dropped 40% over the period 1995 to 2004; in Hennepin County, Minn., family homelessness declined 43 percent over a four-year period. New York City experienced a 19 percent decline over three years.
In just the last year, Berkshire County has utilized the early intervention/prevention model, which includes a housing first approach, to preserve the tenancies of over 300 imminently at-risk households, and over 150 households have been placed into appropriate, permanent housing, avoiding placement into a homeless shelter. The collaborative opportunities provided through the Western Massachusetts Network to End homelessness will significantly increase Berkshire County's successes.
We truly believe that we are on our way to finding out just what it means to best meet the challenge of homelessness. We trust that by this time next year, more families and individuals will have a Thanksgiving table to call their own. They deserve nothing less.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, represents the 48 western communities of the Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin Senate District. He serves as the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Revenue and is co-chairman of the Berkshire Leadership Council to End Homelessness.
Brad Gordon is the executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority.