What is the best way to address the problem of homelessness? Thursday, October 5, 2006
D. Craig MacCormack 508-626-4429 Framingham Tab
With the region's largest social service agency vowing to end area homelessness in the next few years, it bears asking why the philosophy of helping those in need has changed so dramatically.

South Middlesex Opportunity Council, which operates four homeless shelters in MetroWest, 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 effort starts with the Common Ground shelter in downtown Framingham, an overflow shelter that will close Oct. 16. Common Ground is also known as the "wet shelter," since it also accepts people who are drinking or using drugs, making Common Ground the only local shelter that doesn't require sobriety.

"We've always been successful in creating housing for folks for whom substance abuse wasn't an issue or people who were committed to sobriety," said Cuddy.

"The problem for a while has been there were people who were cycling through who were resistant to treatment who we weren't helping," he said.

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.

"In this area, we're not confronted with overwhelming numbers of people who are living on the streets and suffering from life problems such as mental illness," said Cuddy.

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.

"There's been a critical mass of issues that have come together," said Cuddy.  "The major urban centers especially have realized that the policy of sheltering people isn't addressing the issue."

The problem dates back at least 20 years.  In the 1980s, 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.  SMOC hopes to close one shelter per year, said Cuddy.

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.

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.

It has been featured in The New York Times and praised in the conservative Weekly Standard.

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.

Cuddy agreed with the shift in philosophy, saying there are many reasons why it hasn't been helping.  He embraces the idea of trying to help the people whose issues have become the biggest financial burden to live independently.

"It's not cost-effective," he said.  "(Helping these people) is costing a tremendous amount of money and they're still living in shelters.  It makes sense from a humane point of view and from a financial point of view to do something different."

Instead, local governments and social service agencies, with help from the government, are building clean 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 long-range plan to close its shelters, beginning with Common Ground, which the agency will replace with a housing resource center geared toward preventing homelessness instead of just managing it.

Cuddy said SMOC is also planning seven to 10 "housing first" apartment units for the chronically homeless.

SMOC is now searching for financial backing from state, federal and non-profit sources.  Among its recent success stories is Scudder House, a sober housing development for 12 women that was once a farmhouse owned by the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.

SMOC is also hoping to move its sober housing program from Concord Street to Winter Street, but has met resistance from neighbors and town officials.  The project now being scrutinized by the Planning Board under the Dover Amendment, which protects properties that have religious or educational uses.

"Our mission continues to be addressing the housing needs of all people, and we believe a majority of them can move to self-sufficiency," said Cuddy.

Meanwhile, selectmen Chairman Dennis Giombetti is among those Framingham officials pushing for regional solutions to solving homelessness, saying other towns need to join the effort Framingham took on years ago.

Giombetti issued SMOC a challenge: 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 this summer.

Among SMOC's other locations are in communities as close as Marlborough and Ashland, as well as Easthampton, Fitchburg, Medway, Northbridge and Worcester.

Cuddy believes it won't take long for the agency to know whether the latest approach is the best one, saying he hopes to have an update for town officials and legislators on the initiatives progress by the end of the year.

"If we get to the winter and we hear that people are camping out somewhere rather than on the road to finding stable housing, we've failed," said Cuddy.

Send comments to: hjw2001@gmail.com