City’s Effort to House Chronic Homeless Compounded by Hundreds of New Arrivals

More than 800 new homeless arrivals into Boston have complicated the effort to try to house all chronically homeless people in the City by the end of this year.

The City’s innovative effort to catalog and house the hundreds of chronically homeless in Boston took root in 2016, and made tremendous success initially, but has been confounded lately by hundreds and hundreds of chronically homeless people who have come into the City and were not planned for.

That “inflow” of people has complicated the original goal of ending homelessness by 2018, and has shown the need for the effort to continue, officials said.

Chronically homeless persons are described as those who have spent more than 365 days in a shelter.

Housing Chief Sheila Dillion, director of the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), and Laila Bernstein, of DND’s Supportive Housing Services, reported late last week on the most recent progress of the innovative housing and data-sharing program.

It was both a celebration and an expression of frustration.

Dillon and Bernstein said they began the effort in 2016 with 612 people on the original list – one of the first completely inclusive lists of chronically homeless people in a major city. That number was whittled down to 76 people they were concentrating on – having housed 287 of those 612 people, with another 249 having left the Boston system.

Then came the wave, where 840 new people appeared on the most recent list that was run this past winter. The inflow has overwhelmed the effort.

“Things are complicated and we have learned just how complicate they are,” said Bernstein. “We did not anticipate this inflow. There are hundreds more than we anticipated and there are a few reasons for why we think this is so high.”

One reason, she said, is Boston has particularly low-threshold shelters. “Essentially we shelter everyone who shows up and needs it,” she said. “When we look at the data, it’s really serving a regional population. So there are folks coming to Boston (shelters) from metro Boston, from Massachusetts and from all over the world. So, the inflow model we had did not stand up to that pressure. People come to Boston for a lot of reasons…People are getting housed. We have a housing authority with a homeless preference. In some ways we have more resources than communities around us, so it’s a logical choice.”

Lyndia Downie, of the Pine Street Inn in the South End, said the low-barrier shelter situation is a Catch-22.

“Boston has been very barrier-free on the shelter side for a long time,” she said. “It’s a Catch-22. You want to be barrier free because if you can’t get people to come in, you can’t ever have the conversation about what is next. You can’t reach out to people where they are. You can’t engage with them to find where they come from and if there’s an opportunity to go back.”

Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, said anyone with services finds themselves overwhelmed, highlighting the need for more walk-in shelters statewide.

“This becomes a statewide issue because there is a need for more walk-in shelters,” Finn, a former Quincy city councilor, said. “Worcester had declared it ended chronic homelessness and now they are worse than they were before. Any community that includes that walk-in shelter is experiencing this same thing. It is hard to keep up. I would include Quincy, Worcester, Gloucester, Framingham, they all have these issues.”

Dillon said the inflow number is in great part due to people coming in from outside of Boston and getting stuck in the system.

“The incoming us up slightly,” she said. “In most major cities you’re seeing an increase of homeless people and homeless families as real estate prices get expensive. The outlying suburbs in Massachusetts and New England don’t have a robust affordable housing production system and their housing authorities are not prioritizing housing the homeless. Ours does. It’s the number one priority. They can’t find what they need and they’re coming here. Some 50 to 60 percent are from out of Boston. That number is growing as real estate prices increase.”

Added Bernstein, “It’s an immense number. It puts a lot of pressure on not only our emergency response homeless system, but also on our housing exit resources. We have grown that over the course of this plan, but we can’t keep up with that level.”

Said Dillon, “We modeled this out when we began and our inflow was substantially lower.”

What that has led to is a larger number to work with. While the effort continues to house people at a great rate, the numbers of people coming into chronically homeless outpaces the numbers of people that can be housed.

Out of the original 612 number, and the inflow of 840 (a total of 1,452 on the list), they have now housed 580 people, but it leaves another 493 people to address.

Now, they are having to prioritize the scarce housing resources available, focusing first on a group of people who have been homeless in Boston for more than three years. That represents about 58 percent of the 493 people now on the list.

“It’s hard to house someone when they’re not there all the time,” said Bernstein. “A lot of these folks may be a name on our list, but when our staff go to look for them…they’re not there. We’ve had to flip how we’re prioritizing people for housing to make sure we’re prioritizing these 58 percent. We started with a system that wasn’t doing that, but now we’re prioritizing people based on cumulative days homeless. So we really are now focusing on those the mayor and the effort intended us to focus on.”

Said Dillon, “That was a lightbulb moment because there are a lot of folks who aren’t always here to work with. That was something we learned.”

One celebratory point was the fact that the City has established such a rigorous “data warehouse” for everyone – City agencies and private provider partners – to access. More than 35 agencies are part of the group, and all of them are on the same page for the first time ever with complete and helpful data on each homeless person.

“They have tied various providers together to integrate data like never before,” said Finn.

Dillon said sharing data on homeless individuals as a task that wasn’t easy, but it has been a victory of the effort to end chronic homelessness.

“All of this data is now shared amongst us,” she said. “Trying to share data about people is very difficult, but now everyone is on the same page with the data. We can now all see whose on the list now, what’s their status, the length of homelessness and who is working with them. We can see what housing path they’re on and what their medical needs are, their providers and the insurance information. All of that is in there.”

Bernstein said they have learned that they have to work at this level of detail to find success. Without the details, things get duplicated and people get lost in the system.

“There’s a dashboard on each client showing where they’re staying and what programs they are accessing,” she said. “We’re using that list to match people to housing, which is how we can say we’re housing the most vulnerable. It’s not just first-come, first served anymore. We’re housing those who have been there the longest. It’s made a huge difference on how we can target our scarce resources.”

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