Citywide Forum Focuses on Homelessness

A citywide forum focusing on the issue of homelessness in Boston, including efforts to help get more of the city’s unsheltered population off the streets through new affordable- and supportive-housing opportunities, took place Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the Copley Branch of the Boston Public Library.

The forum, which was also held virtually, was moderated by Shirley Leung, columnist and associate editor for The Boston Globe, while panelists included Sheila Dillon, chief of housing and director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing; Matthew Pyne, director of housing programs for the Pine Street Inn; Frank, a Pine Street Inn job training participant, and a Boston resident with life experience; Joyce Tavon, senior director of policy and programs for the MA Housing and Shelter Alliance; Chanda Smart, CEO of OnyxGroup Development, LLC, and a member of the Street Outreach Unit for the Boston Police Department; and Gianna Gifford, chief of adult services for the BPL

Boston currently has 290,000 units of housing, with 56,000 or 19 percent, designated as deed-restricted, or affordable, according to Dillon. “I’m not here to tell you that’s enough, but it’s the highest percentage compared to any other major city in the United States,” she said.

The “vast majority” of the city’s rentals are reserved for seniors and other special populations, added Dillon, while Boston now has around 800 units in the pipeline that will serve the homeless population.

The city has set a citywide benchmark of 19 percent for affordable housing, said Dillon, although currently there is great disparity between neighborhoods in this regard, with affordable housing accounting for around 50 percent of the housing stock in Roxbury and Chinatown, but only 6 percent on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay.

Some new affordable housing units could go to the city’s homeless population, which stands at 1,240 individuals living in shelters and 119 unsheltered individuals, as well as 929 families. The number of unsheltered homeless in Boston is the lowest of any major U.S. city, but as Dillon pointed out, this survey was taken in February – a time of the year when fewer people are typically living on the street due to inclement weather.

Mayor Michelle Wu has pledged $200 million in federal funds that Boston received from the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) to increase the supply of affordable housing in the city, said Dillon.

Boston also recently completed an audit of city-owned land, with an eye towards building more affordable housing there, added Dillon, and has begun the community process in regard to the first set of parcels.

Other initiatives that aim to increase Boston’s affordable-housing stock include the Acquisition Opportunity Program (AOP) by which the city acquires residential buildings to remove them from the “speculative market,” said Dillon, as well as state legislation proposing a Transfer Fee, which would put a 2-percent surcharge on all transactions over $2 million towards affordable housing in the city.

“We’re working as hard as we can to build as much affordable housing with resources we have,” said Dillon.

Moreover, Dillon said Mayor Wu is hoping to bring rent stabilization, which was voted out in 1993, back to Boston.

Permanent Supportive Housing is one type of affordable housing that targets vulnerable populations, including individuals experiencing long-term homelessness or a debilitating condition, while offering them supportive services, said Tavon.

“It works, and it’s actually less costly than homelessness,” said Tavon, who added that 85 percent of participants in these programs remained housed after one year while 78 percent remained housed after 15 years.

Additionally, the estimated reduction in annual healthcare costs is $5,267 per person for Permanent Supportive Housing participants, said Tavon.

Frank, a 61-year-old Dorchester native who, despite working two jobs, found himself homeless on the streets of Boston in his 50s, was also hand at the forum to discuss the positive steps he has taken since arriving last New Year’s Eve at the Pine Street Inn.

Through the Pine Street Inn, Frank has been placed in housing in Brighton and has lined up a couple of job interviews in the food industry after completing the shelter’s iCater job-training program.

In much the same way the Pine Street Inn serves Boston’s homeless population at night, the Copley Branch of the BPL serves as sort of a de facto day shelter for many vulnerable Bostonians, according to Gifford.

“Our spaces are sort of the equivalent to a day shelter for people who are homeless or in other kind of crises in their lives,” she said.

Within the last two years, the Copley Branch of the BPL  has created a Community Learning Team, which Gifford oversees and includes a new Health and Human Services Specialist, who, said Gifford, can help individuals with tasks ranging from finding a shelter; signing up for state SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits or a low-cost cellphone; enrolling in MassHealth; or even finding a new pair of shoes. The team also plans to soon hire a Mobile Outreach Coordinator who would visit Boston Housing Authority locations and senior residences to teach tech literacy, said Gifford.

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