This op-ed was written by Project Place Executive Director, Suzanne Kenney, and published in the South End News on Thursday August 20, 2015.
It may sound strange, but the anxieties wrought by homelessness do not go away with permanent housing.
The relief experienced by those who have secured housing after a period of homelessness is often quickly replaced by new worries related to caring for oneself: affording groceries; learning how to cook; paying the bills to keep the lights on; and even dealing with the loneliness that can come from living alone. Those who are newly housed who get support with these issues are much more successful at reintegrating into their communities than those who do not.
It’s something to keep in mind as the city forges ahead with Mayor Marty Walsh’s bold plan to end homelessness among veterans by the end of this year, and to house those in the city who have experienced chronic homelessness by 2018.
Thanks to a large network of community-based shelters and service providers, Boston enjoys one of the lowest rates of homelessness among large urban cities in the country. Even so, results of the city’s annual housing census, conducted last February, showed an alarming 25 percent spike in homelessness among families, and a 5.6 percent increase in the number of individuals who are homeless over last year’s count. Some of the increase can be attributed to rising housing costs and stubborn rates of unemployment.
But the fragility of Boston’s shelter system was exposed with the sudden closure last fall of the Long Island shelter, which showed the city that “on any given day, we are one shelter closure away from a crisis,” as noted in Walsh’s “An Action Plan to End Veteran and Chronic Homelessness in Boston: 2015-2018.”
Mayor Walsh deserves praise for using the Long Island crisis as an opportunity to build a new plan to fight homelessness in Boston. There are approximately 80 homeless veterans in the city, and about 600 individuals who are chronically homeless-defined by the federal government as those with a disabling condition who have been continuously homeless for a year or more, or had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. Walsh’s plan to house every homeless veteran in the city by the end of this year, and to house those experiencing chronic homelessness in the city by 2018 is possible.
The Mayor aims to create 950 permanent housing units to achieve his goals. The city will also employ the “Housing First” approach to ending homelessness that has met with great success in places like Utah and Houston, Texas. The most innovative feature of the Housing First model moves people who are homeless from the streets immediately into permanent housing, rather than predicating access on conditions such as sobriety, employment, or other requirements that often create barriers to moving out of the shelter system into more stable housing.
But the issues that led to homelessness in the first place must be addressed if long-term stability is to be achieved. In the short term, that means easy access to substance use recovery programs; job skills training; opportunities for employment at a livable wage; and mental health care. Additionally, longer-term supports will need to be put in place to ensure that someone who is housed under the new program in 2018 isn’t back on the street by 2019.
The causes of homelessness are numerous and complex. Various combinations of mental or physical health problems, addiction, poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, and difficulty reintegrating into society after a period of incarceration or a long and traumatic military deployment can dramatically destabilize even the most resolute among us.
These people need housing. But they’ll need more than that to keep a roof over their heads.