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Number of homeless families is on the rise

Date: 2/15/2011

Feb. 16, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — Although the numbers of people who are living on the streets in the city have decreased from last year, that number doesn't tell the complete story about homelessness in the third largest community in the Commonwealth.

In a press release from the Mental Health Association, the annual census of people living outside conducted on Jan. 26 showed there were only five people. This compares to 10 people last year and 33 people five years ago.

Bill Miller, the executive director of Friends of the Homeless (FOH), which operates the shelter on Worthington Street, explained to Reminder Publications that number would be higher if the shelter turned away people once it filled to capacity.

FOH has funded 133 shelter beds and Miller said, "On the night of the point in time, we had 173 individuals in shelter. If we were sticking to our funded capacity, the street count could easily be higher."

He added, "We're absolutely packed ... our nightly average is up from last year."

In a report on the 2011 homeless census, Geraldine McCafferty, the city's director of housing, wrote, "This progress reflects our aggressive campaign to house people in permanent, supportive housing and reflects the fact that a portion of this housing has been especially targeted to hard-to-serve street homeless individuals. I think that it also reflects the fact that now — unlike in 2004 — we have a safe shelter where people are willing to go to get off of the streets."

The census, though, counted all of the homeless people in the city and showed the number of single homeless people only increased by eight people over last year to 211.

There was a more dramatic increase in homeless families. According to McCafferty's report, there are 166 such families now in the city, up from 139 from last year. The 166 families constituted 557 people.

McCafferty wrote, "It is hard to use the number for Springfield as an actual gauge of family homelessness, however. Eligible families experiencing homelessness are provided with shelter placements by the Commonwealth, which uses contracted shelters and apartments, and also uses motels once the contracted units are full. Family shelter units in Springfield on the night of the count were at full capacity and additional families were placed in motels located inside and outside of the city of Springfield. The number that I am reporting reflects only those in shelter or motels located within the city.

"There is the inevitable assumption that the housing crisis and the unemployment rate are driving increased family homelessness, but I think that these factors only tell part of the story. The part they tell is about the number of people experiencing a housing crisis. The rest of the story is about how we respond to the housing crisis.

"Over the past year, the Commonwealth made progress in moving from a response that is based on shelter to one that is based on helping homeless families access housing as quickly as possible. As a result of new programs, there was a big reduction in family homelessness between January 2010 and July 2010," McCafferty continued. "Unfortunately, the Commonwealth has been funding both an existing system and a new system at the same time, and exhausted the funds it could devote to a new system. Once Housing First funds were gone, the numbers of homeless families began to rise again. The administration is proposing an overhaul of the existing system, which emphasizes housing from the beginning and it is expected that implementation of the new system would result in shorter shelter stays and better housing outcomes," she said. McCafferty told Reminder Publications the state's budgeting for housing for the homeless is dictated by statue, but historically it has never been enough. Routinely, supplemental budgets to cover the costs have been approved by the Legislature.

Currently, the Patrick Administration has proposed redefining the eligibility for families going to into shelters. The effort is to move more families into the Housing First program, which places them into permanent housing rather than temporary shelters.

McCafferty explained that approach is less expensive and has proven to have better outcomes.

The Patrick Administration has suggested using shelters more to house younger heads of households, she added.

McCafferty believes there would be a "huge political pushback" from the Legislature if funding for shelters were decreased.

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