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Cities unite to discuss homelessness

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

The cities of Springfield, Holyoke and Northampton will be sponsoring a symposium on Jan. 22 to address the issue of homelessness on a regional level.

Although still in the planning stages, Holyoke Mayor Michael Sullivan made the announcement at a meeting of his Industrial Development Advisory Committee on Dec. 6.

Sullivan said that Lt. Governor-elect Timothy Murray has been invited as well as Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank. Sullivan is hoping that Governor-elect Deval Patrick will also attend.

The symposium will be conducted at the Kittredge Center at Holyoke Community College.

Gerry McCafferty, deputy director for homeless and special needs housing in Springfield, confirmed the city's participation in the symposium and said it was part of the process Springfield is undertaking to address the root causes of homelessness.

Same problem, two cities

Sullivan expressed serious concerns about new efforts to provide the poor with housing in Holyoke. He said he surprised officials of both the Diocese of Springfield and Habitat for Humanity with his lack of enthusiasm for each organization to build low-cost housing in the city.

He is concerned about concentrating more people at or below the poverty line in the city. He said currently Holyoke, a city of about 40,000 residents, has over 2,200 families living below the poverty line.

Available property in the city provides the opportunity for a greater concentration of poor, but the city doesn't have the capacity to provide the services they need.

Sullivan said the closing of homeless shelters in the eastern part of the state is driving more poor to cities such as Holyoke.

Stressing that he wants to do the "socially responsible thing," Sullivan said that other communities even the suburban ones where poverty is seen far less need to share in providing services.

"I have to stand up and say we need a balance," he said.

He added that over the past three years there has been a 200 percent increase in families with no permanent address in the city.

Additional shelters or non-profit housing take properties off the tax base, which can further erode the city's financial ability to help the poor, he added.

Sullivan said he wants to see the homeless receive better service from the state operated shelters in the city. He noted that on weekends state run services are not available to help people

"I'm not asking for more money. I'm asking for a better way to spend the money, a more seamless way to provide services," he said.

A different approach

Springfield city officials made a trip to Providence, RI, last week to tour that city's Housing First program, McCafferty said.

She said Housing First is a different approach to helping the homeless. She said the current philosophy has been to address issues such as mental health and addiction before moving the homeless into a transitional housing program. Housing First places the homeless person in housing as the first step. She said the approach has had an 85 percent success rate and that people in the program have maintained stability for two years.

McCafferty said the city's long-term plan to address homelessness was completed in September and turned over to Mayor Charles Ryan for his review.

She agreed with Sullivan that "certainly a piece [of the solution] is to understand the problem of homelessness as a regional problem."

She explained the Housing First program would not eliminate the need for a shelter as many of the homeless are the victims of financial emergencies beyond their control. What the program could do is move the chronic homeless into housing that would free up funding to aid emergency shelters.

She said a new shelter would be "very service intensive to help people get on their feet quickly."