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Homelessness plan proceeds

Mayor Michael Sullivan
By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

HOLYOKE While the Commonwealth is working on a statewide plan to end homelessness, area representatives from municipal governments, state agencies and social service agencies met again last week at Holyoke Community College to discuss the progress on a regional plan to address the problem.

Both the state and the local group intend to release a plan by the end of the year.

Holyoke Mayor Michael Sullivan and Northampton Mayor Claire Higgins head up the local group, the Pioneer Valley Regional Plan to End Homelessness Leadership Council. Both mayors are on the state's recently formed Commission to End Homelessness and are the only mayors on the commission besides Thomas Menino of Boston.

Sullivan told the local group he has been traveling to Boston for meetings every other week for the past 10 weeks. He said the homework for commission members is to try to define homelessness. Apparently, Sullivan said, various state agencies have their own definition of what homelessness is and there is a need for a standard definition.

He reported that despite what some people might think, homelessness is not just an individual on the street homeless families is a rising phenomena.

As the commission proceeds in its work, Sullivan said he is concerned about the level of funding to address the causes of homelessness.

"We have a $100 problem and we're trying to spend $10 on it," he said.

Sullivan expressed frustration that the state issued 120 housing vouchers statewide for homeless people prior to Labor Day. Holyoke received 20 of the vouchers. He said state officials believe if the Commonwealth has access to 750 more apartments it could house 3,000 homeless statewide. Sullivan remarked there are probably 3,000 homeless people living in state housing in Holyoke alone.

He said there is an increase in homeless children entering the Holyoke Public Schools. In 2005 there were 18 homeless children at the H.B. Lawrence School. This year there are 56 students.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murphy, who is a member of the commission, recently met with staff and faculty at the H.B. Lawrence School about situations homeless students face.

The city of Holyoke has enacted its own Transitional Opportunity Program to help these children. Sullivan said the family receives counseling and the students are placed in small classrooms to be assessed since often they have no school records or the records are slow in coming from previous schools. Once assessed, they are brought into conventional classes.

The state Department of Education (DOE) opposes this program, Sullivan said. He added representatives from DOE have yet to attend a commission meeting.

Illustrating how much work must be done to find solutions for homelessness, Sullivan note how one person made the suggestion to house all of the state's homeless at an closed military facility.

He is also worried about the effect of casinos on homelessness and how at-risk people are going to spend their money if casinos come to Massachusetts.

"I don't think it's a positive impact," he said.

The promise of lowered property taxes may not move ahead quality of life issues, he added.

Although Sullivan has serious misgivings about casinos, he said that Holyoke residents have overwhelming approved casinos in the city in three ballot questions.