Homes for the homeless Sunday, July 16, 2006
Rick Holmes Metrowest Daily News
For those who've never had to deal with it close up, it's easy to think of homelessness as one of those intractable human tribulations that will always be with us, like death, dread diseases or summer heat waves.  Maybe it can be managed, but it can't be solved.

But get up real close, and homelessness is a problem for one person at a time.  Get that person what he or she needs, and his or her homelessness disappears.

Step back a little more, and homelessness is still a definable problem.  If you can count the individuals who are homeless and sort through the circumstances that brought each of them to this place, you can intervene strategically.  Do it right, and you can do more than manage homelessness; you can end it.

That's what South Middlesex Opportunity Council, which operates four homeless shelters in MetroWest, wants to do.  SMOC has 94 beds for single homeless adults in Framingham, Marlborough and Ashland. Executive Director Jim Cuddy has a plan to replace those shelters with stable housing.

The most notorious of SMOC's operations is the Common Ground shelter in downtown Framingham, which serves as an overflow shelter when there's no room in SMOC's other shelters -- which is nearly all the time.  Common Ground is also known as the "wet shelter," since it also accepts people who are drinking or using drugs, the only local shelter that doesn't require sobriety.

The Common Ground shelter is management of homelessness at its worst.  People are allowed in at night and sent back to the streets in the morning.  Some counseling and services are available, but these people's problems aren't getting solved and their presence on downtown streets isn't especially welcome.

Different homeless individuals require different solutions, Cuddy says.  Researchers such as Dennis Culhane at University of Pennsylvania differentiate between "episodic homelessness," which can afflict single mothers after a divorce, for instance, and "chronic homelessness," defined as being either continually homeless for a year or more or having at least four episodes of homelessness over a three-year period coupled with a disabling condition.

SMOC surveyed the clients in their shelters, collecting information on education, work and housing history, health and substance abuse.  Almost half would not need a shelter at all, they found, if they can be connected to available housing resources.  A 10-day program of shelter and emergency assistance should be able to move them into long-term housing.

About 44 percent can be categorized as chronically homeless.  For them, SMOC wants to apply solutions from a new wave of thinking about homelessness making the rounds across the country.

There's something painfully obvious in the new theory:  The real problem for homeless people, policymakers from Washington to MetroWest are saying, isn't that they are addicted to drugs, or that they have mental disorders, or that they lack education or job skills.  The real problem for the homeless is that they don't have a place to live.

Not that those other conditions aren't problems, but they are problems that are deepened by homelessness.  People whose days are devoted to finding the next meal, the next drink, or worrying about where to spend the next night, are in no position to tackle the problems of health, habits, jobs or education that underlie their situation.

Public policymakers bear some responsibility for the surge in homelessness over the last 25 years.  Deinstitutionalization took the mentally ill out of deplorable conditions in state hospitals, but many eventually ended up on the streets, unable to care for themselves.  In the name of eliminating substandard housing, thousands of single-room-occupancy units -- boarding houses and "flophouses" that were the last resort of people barely able to survive on their own -- were destroyed, leaving tenants with nowhere to go.

In the '80s, we started seeing the results of those policies on the streets of MetroWest.  The Greater Marlboro Shelter, now known as Roland's House, opened after a homeless man was found dead in Hudson.  Shelters also opened in Natick, Milford, Framingham and Ashland.

Framingham churches opened the overflow shelter now known as Common Ground for fear that the homeless people camped in a spot near the railroad tracks known as "The Weeds" would die in the winter cold.  In 1996, two young men died in an abandoned truck, trying to keep warm before the overflow shelter opened for the season.  SMOC later made it a year-round operation.  When the state closed its Framingham detox center in 2003, shelters saw a new surge of clients.

Shelters were a response to homelessness, not a solution.  The policymakers' new approach, "housing first," is an innovative social policy from a surprising source: the Bush Administration.  It is being trumpeted nationally by Philip F. Mangano, who spent decades working in social services in Boston before being tapped as executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.  In recent weeks, it has been featured in The New York Times and praised in the conservative Weekly Standard.

Fueling the "housing first" movement is a recognition of how expensive the chronically homeless are.  A two-year study that followed 20 homeless people through the shelters, jails, treatment centers and hospitals of San Diego calculated that each of them was costing the city $200,000 a year, Mangano told the Weekly Standard.  "For that kind of money, the city could have bought them each a penthouse apartment," he said.

Instead, local governments and social service agencies, with help from the federal government, are building clean, if spartan, accommodations to give the chronic homeless a stable roof over their heads.  Seattle just built a new apartment building to house 75 "chronic public inebriates."  They still drink, but they aren't passed out in someone's yard, and officials say housing the homeless is cheaper and more compassionate than the alternatives.

The approach has its critics, especially among those who think the best treatment for addiction is punishment.  A Seattle talk show host ridicules the program as "Bunks for drunks."

SMOC has drafted a two-year plan to close its shelters, beginning with Common Ground, which Cuddy wants to replace with a housing resource center geared toward preventing homelessness instead of just managing it.  But closing the shelters will require creating new "sober housing" -- supervised housing for individuals in recovery.  He's also planning seven to 10 "housing first" apartment units for the chronically homeless.

To pull off this shift, SMOC needs funding from state, federal and non-profit sources.  It needs support from local organizations like the United Church of Christ, which provided the farmhouse near its Framingham headquarters SMOC has turned into Scudder House, providing sober housing for 12 women in recovery.

It also needs the cooperation of local officials, which has been harder to come by.  That's especially true in Framingham, where neighbors and some officials are resisting a move to put a SMOC sober housing program on Winter Street.

You might have thought SMOC's offer to close the downtown overflow shelter would have been welcomed by officials who have long blamed it for a litany of downtown woes.  But Selectmen Chairman Dennis Giombetti refuses to recognize a link between closing SMOC's shelters and creating long-term housing for those who now sleep there.

It's not that Framingham doesn't want to do its part, Giombetti says, but homelessness is a regional problem that should have regional solutions.  In response to Cuddy's challenge to close the shelters if new housing options can be sited, Giombetti issued a challenge of his own:  For every new SMOC housing unit located outside Framingham, he would welcome a new unit in his community, he told a group of Daily News editors last week.

Giombetti is right to describe homelessness as a regional problem, but wrong to assume Framingham is uniquely burdened by SMOC clients.  SMOC provides housing in services not just in Marlborough and Ashland, but in towns as close as Medway and Northbridge and as far as Fitchburg, Worcester and Easthampton.

Nor is it practical to locate a program for homeless people in a Sherborn mansion far from public transportation just to please the politicians and NIMBYs of Framingham.  State and federal taxpayers pay for the work of SMOC and other social service agencies, and they expect that money to be spent wisely.

Framingham has been a haven for the homeless since the first hoboes caught the first trains headed west, but it's not the only place where those cut loose from their roots have landed.  The chronically homeless -- the physically disabled, the mentally ill, the addicted -- come from every community.  So do the episodically homeless, individuals and families in crisis.

All of us have some moral obligation to end homelessness, whatever community we call home.  Policymakers across the country, and SMOC here in MetroWest, have theories and plans to replace homeless shelters with something much better.  In MetroWest that requires finding places for a couple of dozen units of supported housing.  That plan deserves a better response than "build them somewhere else."

Send comments to: