A View from the Hill
Representative Casey's "View From the Hill" can be found on the web at
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 25, 2000
CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240
"LENDING A HELPING HAND TO THE HOMELESS"
No doubt about it. It's cold outside. Winter in New England has come back with all its fury to make life just a little more inconvenient for all of us. It seems that with freezing weather like this, the less time one spends outside, the better. Unfortunately, some people in our society do not have that choice: the homeless.
While we may gripe about having to run from the car to house to keep warm, some folks are left huddling together next to heating vents to keep from freezing. As we lay in our comfortable beds and tuck ourselves in under the warm covers, they shiver in makeshift cardboard houses under layers of newspaper.
Those of us who have studied the conditions of life in other nations, especially developing nations, should be appalled to see something like this on the streets of America. In poor countries like Haiti or Honduras, homelessness is a fact of life for many, but in the United States?
Legislators have been asking themselves this question for several years now in their deliberations about the most effective ways to remedy the situation. Several solutions have been devised to address the dilemma- many of which have made the difference between life and death for some people. But it seems that even these measures are always one step behind, as homelessness follows us at every step of the way.
Just recently, the state Executive Office of Administration and Finance (EOAF) released a report detailing the problem of homelessness in Massachusetts. The agency's findings are quite revealing because they shed light on many common misconceptions of the homeless population. It is usually assumed, for example, that homeless people are mostly middle-aged men. This assumption is correct- provided that we only account for homeless individuals. According to a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts in 1998, there are approximately 22,000 such people in the Commonwealth, 80% of whom are men.
The same study, however, indicated that families constitute a sizable portion of the total homeless population. UMASS researchers estimated that there were about 10,000 homeless families on the streets of Massachusetts, containing on the average, one to three children. This fact is eye opening to many because we usually do not associate families (let alone children) with homelessness. Furthermore, this data suggests that families- not individuals- make up the majority of the homeless population.
The most shocking aspect about such findings is that the homeless problem seems to be getting larger. The EOAF study notes that the number of homeless families has increased 100% from 1990 and the number of homeless individuals has grown by 70%. These numbers are troubling particularly in light of the fact that the state provides over $123 million annually to both prevent homelessness and to help those who have already fallen through the cracks.
The lion's share of this funding ($82 million) is appropriated to the Department of Transitional Assistance, which administers an emergency shelter program throughout the state. The Department provides over 2,600 beds for homeless individuals and 875 rooms for homeless families. Despite recent expansion of shelter capacities, however, vacancy rates are actually declining. In 1997, rates were at about 6%, but in 1999, they were down to almost 2%.
What the data seems to indicate is that current policies are alleviating the symptoms of homelessness, but not its root causes.
We can certainly continue to increase funding to boost the capacity of these shelters even further, but such an approach may still keep us one step behind if current trends persist. We already spend substantially more for the homeless than most other states, and yet, the problem still persists. The EOAF's report asserted that state funds might be more wisely spent on prevention measures rather than "band-aids," and this appears to be the most logical solution.
Stopgap measures like emergency shelters will, of course, be supported by the state legislature to address immediate needs- especially during times of bitter cold. Not every case of homelessness can be anticipated, as the causes are varied and unpredictable. Thus, we must address some problems as they arise. Yet, the state can take positive measures to stop homelessness before it happens by implementing "safety net" policies.
The fabric of this net, of course, will most likely be one the real solutions to the problem: affordable housing. Comedian George Carlin, a staunch advocate for the homeless, once said that the condition should really be called "houselessness" because housing is what these people actually need. State policy analysts agree on this matter, and have indicated in the EOAF's report that a lack of affordable housing is what is causing the added pressure on the shelter system. If we relieve this pressure by investing in low-cost housing, there would be no need to keep adding more and more beds every year.
Currently, there are initiatives being taken by both branches of the legislature to assist citizens who are on the verge of becoming homeless. House bill "1548" and Senate "1956" would protect housing units under the authority of the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. It would allow cities or towns to regulate rents and subsidies should the federal government deregulate, thus allowing financially troubled families and individuals to keep a roof over their heads.
Another bill, just filed in the House, would extend the life of the Massachusetts Community Development Finance Corporation, which has helped revitalize low-income areas over the years in conjunction with local Community Development Corporations. This bill could be of great assistance to those already living in the 16,000 low-cost housing units created by the corporations, as it would ensure that the mission of the CDFC be extended to the year 2010.
The legislation under consideration could play an important part in preventing homelessness in the future. The issue, of course, is invariably complex and needs to be diagnosed carefully so that our tax dollars are spent in the most efficient manner. But we must recognize that the solution is within our reach, and continue to take positive steps so that no human being is left out in the cold.