Years before the pandemic, Massachusetts homeless shelters needed help. A 2016 survey from the Coalition for Homeless Individuals shows that state resources covered less than half the costs of homeless services across Massachusetts.
Then COVID hit, and the needs exploded.
“When I tell you that COVID was for all of us, a really challenging, incredible, stressful event, that would be an understatement,” Lyndia Downie, the executive director of shelter provider Pine Street Inn said in a public meeting Wednesday. “We need help.”
Downie gave testimony during a virtual meeting calling on legislators to significantly increase portions of the 2023 state budget dedicated to helping homeless providers. Shelters across the state report overcrowding, a lack of staffing resources and a heavy financial burden on shelters and providers that has worsened conditions for those experiencing homelessness.
The Coalition for Homeless Individuals, a group of around 40 agencies across the state that provide shelter, permanent, temporary and supportive housing, job training, healthcare and other services to individuals experiencing homelessness, is asking for $110 million in funding in the 2023 state budget, including $100 million to support providers' current needs, an increase in the current budget of $47.7 million. The group is also seeking two new items: $5 million for permanent housing units and $5 million to continue the rapid transition of individuals into permanent housing.
During the first COVID-19 surge, 36% of guests at Pine Street shelters tested positive and 15% of staff called out sick due to COVID. “We had one of the highest COVID rates in the state because people were living in beds that were a couple of feet apart with no barriers, and at the time we had no PPE,” Downie said. “It was probably the worst environment possible for this kind of escalation.”
Since then, Pine Street Inn was able to reduce positivity rates by leasing hotels and other auxiliary sites — but those measures came at a cost.
Downie and other providers emphasized the need for pathways out of shelter and into housing.
“We cannot go back to shelters the way they were,” Downie said. “We cannot go back to the kind of overcrowding that we've tolerated across the state, and we're really looking to change the numbers and shelter and looking to do as much as we can to rapidly move people out of shelter.”
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Pathways out of homelessness are “incredibly important,” St. Francis House president Karen LaFrazia said. “This line item enables us to take individuals and place them into housing. The last thing we want to do is take people who are living in these housing units and make them homeless again by not fully funding that.”
Approximately 14,000 people in Massachusetts are currently experiencing homelessness. A third of that population are individual or “unaccompanied” adults, many of whom stay in shelters, as Massachusetts shelters a higher number of people than most other states in the country. Adult shelters are funded by the state, federal funds, donations and grants.
“We have really struggled historically, but especially in these past two years to retain and to recruit and to retrain a workforce,” LaFrazia said. “If we're going to continue to do the excellent work that we've been doing and continue to move and see the successes, we are going to have to recruit and retain a talented workforce.”
Increasing funding across the state will also enable providers to meet people where they are, which could reduce concentrations of homelessness in better-resourced cities like Boston, Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan said.
“When the pandemic came to Brockton and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we knew that those facing homelessness would be the most vulnerable population,” Sullivan said. “I am an advocate for increased funding, state funding and federal funding for any organization that provides wraparound services.”
After a street clearing in January of hundreds of tents at a homeless encampment in Boston, on the corner of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Ave., more than 160 people were moved from the area into transitional housing at six new sites around the city. Though city officials promised housing for every person living in the encampment, an estimated 100 others were left without a place to go.
“Is all the housing perfect? Is everything where they are perfect? No,” Newmarket Business Association president Sue Sullivan, who partnered with the city during the sweep, said during the event. “But getting those people out of those tents and into housing was the single best thing that has happened in years.”
The push has to continue, Sullivan said, to get people into a pipeline that keeps them off of the street.
“Our shelter system is working very, very hard to take care of everyone,” she said. “We need to change up the shelter system and really work toward that transitional housing that all of the partners here do so well.”