By Lyndia Downie, President and Executive Director, Pine Street Inn and David W. Manzo, South End Resident and Member of Pine Street Inn’s Board of Directors
The concerns expressed regarding the use of 891 Massachusetts Avenue as a bridge site for housing placement, as well as complaints about increased numbers of people staying on the street, present a no-win dilemma. If we don’t provide temporary shelter during this time of COVID, we run the risk of another surge in cases among the homeless population and beyond. Without an alternative, the street numbers will increase. While we realize the temporary placement of people at 891 Massachusetts Avenue is not ideal, we need to work toward a scenario that provides benefits for both the neighborhood and for those experiencing homelessness.
Due to COVID and the urgency of implementing social distancing, the city has lost over 380 shelter beds. Even with buildings at 891 Massachusetts Avenue and other locations to provide additional space, we are still short beds, which is a grave concern given the potential for another surge, the expiration of the eviction ban, and the coming winter.
The reduction in beds is also driving an increase in street numbers. While our outreach teams offer shelter to those on the street when available, many people fear they will be exposed to the virus by coming into shelter. Early testing showed a 36% positive rate at our shelters, while the last round of testing showed 0 positive cases, because of protocols put in place. While it is unrealistic to expect numbers to stay that low, current measures have contributed to a significant reduction in the spread of COVID throughout the city.
Heading into a potential surge and increased demand for shelter due to job loss and evictions, we will need additional short-term shelter capacity if we do not want to see the street numbers increase, and additional COVID isolation space will be needed for a new outbreak as soon as this fall.
Pine Street Inn now owns or manages more housing units than shelter beds, and our strategy is to increase the supply of permanent supportive housing (PSH) to reduce the overall numbers of homeless individuals in the city. Clearly PSH, where affordable housing is paired with support services aimed at housing retention, offers the best solution to long-term homelessness. With solid data behind it, Pine Street’s retention rate is over 96%.
New housing development is critical, but zoning relief is often insurmountable and adds years and expense. Case in point, our largest development in Jamaica Plain is being held up by one abutter. The City and the Mayor have shown great leadership, and it is disheartening that one person can deny so many homeless people this opportunity.
We also need to be creative about use of state or city property that could include PSH as part of future development. The Shattuck Hospital site in Jamaica Plain, with access to services and public transportation is an ideal location, and we encourage support for housing to be built on this site.
In addition, we need to work on advocacy and funding at the city, state and federal levels. Studies, including one done by Blue Cross Blue Shield, have shown a cost savings up to $11,000 per person/per year in emergency room and in-patient costs when people are placed in permanent supportive housing.
COVID has temporarily necessitated an emergency response, but we must not lose sight of long-term solutions. We look forward to ongoing conversations with government officials and community residents to work through concerns, to continue our efforts to be good neighbors, and to provide housing for our vulnerable neighbors.