SMOC to push changes: Social service agency plans to eliminate Framingham facilities Sunday, January 22, 2006
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Social service agency SMOC proposes to work toward closing its homeless shelters in MetroWest and will unveil a plan this spring to eliminate the need for them, saying it has a social and human responsibility to do so.

In a Daily News column published today, SMOC executive director Jim Cuddy pledges to work with community leaders "to end the need for each and every shelter for which we are responsible."  SMOC runs five shelters, located in Framingham, Ashland, Marlborough and Worcester.

"We've been moving in this direction for a couple of years now," Cuddy said in an interview.  But it is time for the agency, he said, to make an explicit public statement that "we have never wanted to be in the shelter business."

SMOC will offer details of its plan, including when the shelters would be closed, at the spring meeting.  Cuddy said the agency has the resources to replace them with transitional and permanent housing, though he warns it will require "social, political and community will and capital."

"I particularly don't believe that folks who have lost their housing and have a lot of life issues...need to be homeless for long periods of time and wander from one system of care to the next system of care," he said.

The effort would match others happening in Massachusetts and across the country, according to homeless advocates, who applauded Cuddy's proposal and say it is possible.

John O'Brien, the New England regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said communities nationwide are developing 10-year plans to shift emphasis away from emergency shelters and toward more permanent housing.

The plans are directed toward the chronically homeless, defined as those who have a disability and have been homeless for a year or more or four times over three years.  They make up 10 percent of the homeless population but use 50 percent of the resources, he said.

"It's a strategy many communities have identified as the way to go, and research and data tell us...the chronic homeless can be housed," O'Brien said.

Joe Finn, the executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, said the need for shelters can be reduced with "a rational housing policy."  He pointed to a Quincy agency that bought a rooming house for women and cut down on demand at its shelter.

"The need isn't for homeless shelters," Finn said.  "The need is for residential treatment programs.  The need is for affordable, low-income housing.  The need is for supervisory programs for certain types of populations."

SMOC's Irving Street shelter has long been targeted by the agency's critics, particularly during the last year when social service agencies in town have come under intense scrutiny.

Janice Skelley, a member of Stop Tax Exempt Private Property Sprawl, which argues Framingham is overburdened with social service programs, said Cuddy's proposal appeared to be "a positive step in the right direction."

"We're very interested to see what the plan is," she said.  "In other words, does it mean more properties in Framingham to replace a larger facility? We'd be anxious to see what the details of the plan are."

Selectman Dennis Giombetti said he welcomes the goal of permanently closing the wet shelter, but wants to hear more details about the idea.

"It's a worthy goal, but I really need to see the details because the devil is always in the details," he said.

Cuddy said he plans to invite to the spring meeting local and state elected officials as well as banks, businesses and foundations.  The agency, he wrote in the guest column, will need help and cannot close the shelters "in a miserly manner."

"It will be respectful.  It will benefit the community.  It will benefit individuals, and I think we can be a model," he said.  "I think SMOC is in the unique position to accomplish this.  We have the capacity and we have the resources."

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