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Pioneer Valley strives to end homelessness

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

HOLYOKE Homelessness is not just a problem for Springfield and Holyoke. A 47-page report calls for a new approach to end homelessness in Western Massachusetts that is based on regional prevention and affordable housing rather than on shelters and soup kitchens.

After over a year of work, the mayors of Holyoke, Northampton and Springfield unveiled a regional plan to address homelessness throughout Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin Counties at the second annual homelessness summit conducted at Holyoke Community College on Friday.

The event was attended by about 100 elected officials, social service providers and local business people.

Holyoke Mayor Michael Sullivan said the work going into the plan resulted in "an awakening on this issue."

"It led us to a road that is positive," Sullivan said. "We've been on a road to disaster.

"We have to attack homelessness in a different way," he added. "It's going to take a lot of trust and willingness to try something new."

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said, "This is about empowerment. We're moving away from shelters."

Sarno admitted, though, that support services for the homeless must continue as the new plan is implemented.

The plan "All Roads Lead to Home" is a 10-year effort that will be implemented by a new group yet to be created, the Pioneer Valley Committee to End Homelessness. This volunteer board will be composed by community representatives and staffed with a full-time director.

The plan's features include:

Development of a collaborative prevention and rapid re-house network.

Creation of 260 supportive housing opportunities for individuals; 50 supportive housing units for families and four Safe Havens housing projects for the seriously mentally ill.

Development of a regional affordable housing plan and agenda that would lead to the creation of 300 housing units throughout the region that are affordable to households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income.

Employment and training programs that will enable at least 100 homeless and at-risk persons to obtain employment each year.

The plan seeks for every community in the region even those affluent suburbs not considered to have a homeless problem to contribute to the solution of homelessness. In 2006, people from communities such as Amherst, East Longmeadow, Hampden and Wilbraham spent time in local shelters. Rural communities such as Charlemont, Chesterfield, Colrain and Rowe also were represented by homeless seeking aid at shelters.

The plan included a survey of 78 family head of householders and 40 individuals who were using shelter services in November and December of 2007, which revealed the following:

Families were more likely than individuals to experience homelessness due to housing-related crises, such as buildings being condemned; individuals were more likely to suffer homelessness due to an interaction of poverty with medical or mental health problems and substance abuse.

Families reported that financial assistance would have helped them avoid homelessness; individuals reported that mental health and substance use services would have helped them.

Most respondents indicated that they want to achieve long-term economic self-sufficiency through employment but that the biggest challenge related to homelessness was trying to find a job, followed by the challenge of living in an emergency shelter.

In response to such research, the solutions offered by the plan are housing-based with prevention of homelessness as a key component. Similar programs across the country have shown not only improvements in rates of homelessness, but better use of financial resources. The plan notes the programs in Massachusetts that issue cash assistances to families at-risk of being homeless average $1,700 per family. Families in shelters cost on average of $2,940 per month to house and that does not include the cost of case management or health-related services, however.

Sullivan said the next step is to "seek cooperation from everyone and to give up the long held belief that homelessness can't be solved."

Sullivan said that costs to implement the program will be high at first, but the plans components will prove more cost effective over time.