Cover story: Examining homelessness in Worcester

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The last time somebody tried to count them all, there were 1,029 homeless people living somewhere, anywhere, in Worcester.

That was in February. It is 106 more than there were in 2007, when then-City Manager Michael V. O’Brien trumpeted a grand plan to improve services, add housing and end homelessness in Worcester in five years.

It is also 92 more than were counted about the same time in 2014, a nearly 10 percent spike.

Homeless camp

Sun Staff / The Worcester Sun

An encampment for the homeless in Worcester

This summer city housing officials tallied 19 encampments of homeless around the city. There were 50 people in those encampments; the city had found 59 people living outdoors the year before.

The South Middlesex Opportunity Council, which operates the Greater Worcester Housing Connection’s Triage and Assessment Center, a 1-1/2-year-old, 25-bed homeless center at 25 Queen St., proposes more than doubling its capacity to 68 beds.

And there were 200 more people in homeless families in Worcester, a 44 percent increase over 2007, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-funded Point In Time survey released Feb. 25.

So the question is: Was the fight against homelessness in the last eight years a waste of effort and federal, state and local dollars?

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Not at all, says Miguel A. Rivera, the city’s director of housing development. In the face of all that, he said, “I think we’re doing an incredible” job.

O’Brien’s announcement had come with high hopes, because the city manager’s Task Force on Homelessness was composed of people who had been on opposite sides of the thorny issue, but came to an agreement to adopt new philosophies and set aside differences.

The national economy at the time, Rivera contends, had a different agenda.

“We have to take in context the time since 2007” to see why the shelters and tents have not emptied, he said. “We had the mortgage crisis of the middle [class] and returning veterans with traumatic experiences. We’ve had the recession and [government] funding reductions.”

The recent tally conducted by HUD-funded Worcester City & County Continuum of Care found a sliver of good news in that there were 94 fewer homeless individuals — counted differently from families — in Worcester on that February day than eight years earlier.

Grace Carmark

Courtesy Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance

Grace K. Carmark

Important to note, too, that state housing law allows officials to locate a family from somewhere else to a vacancy in Worcester depending on availability. That could push up Worcester’s family homelessness census, said Grace K. Carmark, Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance executive director.

Indeed, even as the economy recovered, overall homelessness in the city increased 9.8 percent over 2014 despite an overall decrease across Worcester County of 6 percent.

Through it all, Worcester continued implementing solutions that prevented even more people from becoming homeless, said Dr. Matilde Castiel, the recently appointed city commissioner of health and human services. She sees the pace quickening of rehousing those who lost their homes, even if it’s hard to keep up with demand.

Those and other factors are beyond the city’s control, Rivera and other advocates point out. Last year, Boston’s Long Island Shelter closed permanently in an emergency, displacing 700 residents. [Editor’s note: Boston announced in June it had completed renovations on a new shelter with a capacity for 400.]

“Our successes have attracted individuals” from Boston, he said.

Gov. Charlie Baker, like Gov. Deval Patrick before him, has vowed to reduce the practice of placing homeless families in hotels and motels. Baker has had notable success, reducing that number around the state by 22 percent, down to 1,184 families as of Tuesday, according to the governor’s office and Office of Housing and Economic Development.

The number of those homeless families in hotels and motels in Worcester, the second-largest city in Massachusetts? Zero, according to Carmark and the Baker administration.

“Our secret is that we work with a lot of businesses and other community partners,” Carmark said. “We do great prevention to keep families from ever having to enter [a] shelter in the first  place.”

That can be a matter of giving grants — usually $1,000 or less — to pay off back rent or utility bills to stop eviction.

How can the alliance afford that, especially in an era of decreasing government funding? It comes partly through a collaboration among 25 area parishes whose members buy gift cards from participating supermarkets, which contribute 5 percent of the proceeds to the housing agency.

That has provided a pool of $150,000 over the past decade to help families “get through a rough patch,” said Carmark.

She added, “We have great relationship[s] with landlords. We can house them more quickly” if the family is not going to be able to afford to stay in their current housing.

The Housing Alliance has 150 units of emergency housing for families, an increase of 20 over last year. The state, which has the nation’s only right-to-shelter law for (eligible) families, controls who gets to use those units.

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Individual homelessness in Worcester, and in particular the old, infamous Public Inebriate Program (or People in Peril) shelter at 701 Main St., was long a contentious topic here before PIP was shut down through the work of O’Brien’s 2007 task force in favor of the Triage and Assessment center at 25 Queen St.

The PIP shelter, which had a lodging-house license for 88 residents, was known to hold a census of double that on the coldest winter nights. Many contended that it also attracted crime to Main South.

An encampment for the homeless in Worcester

Sun Staff / The Worcester Sun

An encampment for the homeless in Worcester

South Middlesex Opportunity Council opened the Triage and Assessment Center in May 2013 — with 25 licensed shelter beds on the first floor and 15 rooming-house beds upstairs. There was great concern about whether an emergency shelter that had rarely stayed within its 88-bed limit during the winter could operate with 25 beds.

Then-city manager O’Brien said the city’s new Housing First philosophy — housing people no matter what; then finding them services for mental illness or substance abuse if necessary — and the 600 additional units of affordable housing recommended by the Task Force on Homelessness and approved by the City Council would eliminate homelessness.

The city administration did not comment on how many of the new housing units — single-room occupancies are needed most — have been or should be built.

The triage center, though, has not been within its licensed capacity in a long time.

While it spiked to up to 119 guests at the height of last winter’s storms, “We’ve never had a month where we’ve averaged 100 people a night,” said Jayde Campbell, Greater Worcester Housing Connection component director.

The triage center had a total of 1,263 people stay there last year, and is on pace to have 1,450 in 2015.

The Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance said, “Factors contributing to the increased number of homeless, unsheltered individuals and chronically homeless include a lack of single room occupancy and efficiency units; increase in opioid use and addiction combined with a shortage of treatment beds; and a deficit of service dollars.”

Jayde Campbell

Lee Hammel / For Worcester Sun

Jayde Campbell, director of the Greater Worcester Housing Connection, at the Triage and Assessment Center, 25 Queen St.

Campbell said that to focus on the numbers is to miss the point that the triage center is all about moving however many people walk through its door out again, as quickly as possible, to stable, affordable housing.

The triage center is unlike the PIP shelter, he said, where a few of the residents were there for many years. “We have nobody in the building that’s been here for a year. We have nobody that’s been here six months,” he said.

“It’s our goal to house everybody as rapidly as possible. It’s not acceptable to let somebody languish because it’s too hard to figure out how to house them,” Campbell said.

The Housing Connection case managers try to get people out the door to the places they need to go to generate income to afford housing, whether that is government benefits or job training — perhaps at SMOC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Opportunity Center — or through a job. And it has money to help people afford first- and last-months’ rent, and security deposits.

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The size a homeless shelter in Worcester should be has long been in question.

Deborah Ekstrom

The Worcester Sun

Deborah Ekstrom

“I have long believed that Worcester needs in the neighborhood of 100 shelter beds. Certainly on a cold winter night the shelter has regularly more than 100 people,” said Deborah J. Ekstrom. She is president and CEO of Community Healthlink Inc., which has more than 300 clients in supported housing and briefly operated the triage center before it moved to 25 Queen St.

She said a separate 25-bed specialty shelter for people with untreated mental illnesses, chronic addictions and other medical issues might be helpful.

Ekstrom, who has been a powerful voice in the social-work community since becoming head of CHL in December 1999, is stepping down in January. (Executive Vice President Nicole Gagne will become interim president.)

District 4 City Councilor Sarai Rivera said SMOC is “doing the best they can under the circumstances,” in which demand exceeds building design.  “We need more capacity, but not necessarily there,” she said.

The councilor said a community meeting should be held if SMOC wants to expand the triage center to 68 beds. Chairwoman of the council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee, Rivera said she would not favor that expansion unless it were part of a plan to expand shelter capacity in other parts of the city also.

Campbell said the 68-bed license request to the city is based not on need, but on what the Queen Street building can accommodate without expansion. Between October and March “it’s pretty frequent that we’ll exceed 68, if not all the time,” he said. Those beyond the capacity of the men’s and women’s dormitories sleep in the drop-in center.

John Hill, communications manager for City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., said SMOC has not made a request to the city. If a request is forthcoming, he said, Augustus would make sure the neighborhood and all other stakeholders would be well informed and have plenty of chance to weigh in before any decisions were made.

The whole community wanted to reduce the size of the emergency shelter for individuals, and in designing the triage center “we all thought that was the right number,” Carmark said.

“The shelter should be what it is. And we should add more housing resources to get more people out of it more quickly. If 100 SROs [single-room occupancies] a year over the next three years were added, it would make a huge impact,” she said.

However, “We’re trying to use current resources. I think there’s [not] a great appetite among the City Council” for more SROs, she added.

All of the city officials and providers interviewed said fighting homelessness is complicated by decades of the federal government either reducing resources or by HUD requiring that dollars that were once used for services to keep clients in housing be used only for “bricks and mortar.”

But HUD public affairs officer Rhonda Siciliano said that, while there have been cuts to some programs that Worcester used, those are not programs that provided services. She said that all housing-program dollars can be used for services for clients if the continuum agrees.

Siciliano also said the federal Opening Doors strategy “has targeted ending homelessness among veterans by the end of this year; ending chronic homelessness in 2017; and ending homelessness for families, youth and children by 2020.”

Goals and outcomes, though, are two different things.

Homeless camp

Sun Staff / The Worcester Sun

An encampment for the homeless in Worcester

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