By Mario D. Zepeda
The homeless in Boston can be seen waiting in lines to enter shelters, panhandling at busy street intersections, or sleeping on park benches. While many homeless people suffer from mental health and substance abuse, the biggest obstacle to ending homelessness in the city is the high cost of housing.
The increasing cost of housing has limited where homeless can live and has created a rise in homeless problems, which are compounded by mental health issues. HomeStart tries to deal with homelessness by helping find homes for those on the streets.
The homeless population in Boston face challenges in seeking the proper resources to improve their housing needs. Shelter rules prohibit individuals from staying in the facility for long periods of times and they are forced to leave.
Shelter users wait for hours as they line up outside of these facilities hoping to win the daily lottery for a bed inside. Shelters are often at full capacity and cannot guarantee admission so the homeless turn to sleeping in parks, transit stations, or open apartment corridors, “Everybody that comes out of a shelter does have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in one form of another. That’s pretty common across the board,” said Elsie Cummings.
Cummings serves as a housing stabilization advocate for the nonprofit Boston-based housing program, HomeStart.
HomeStart’s aim to save families and individuals from losing their homes and offers stabilization services in obtaining and maintaining permanent housing. HomeStart has three different support programs: prevention, housing search, and stabilization.
Cummings helps clients address issues pertaining to housing evictions, public housing, and low-affordable housing. These stabilization services assist clients to maintain their housing and reach a higher quality of life.
Cummings works with clients from Boston shelters such as Pine Street Inn, Woods Mullen, and Southampton to help address housing issues. “The most obvious and glaring barriers of this population are mental health and substance abuse reasons. Those go hand in hand in this demographic,” she said.
The Housing and Urban Development reports homelessness rates continue to rise in Boston. Its 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report ranks Boston 8th among major cities with the largest number of people experiencing homelessness.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that in order to afford a 1 bedroom in Massachusetts earning $11 an hour minimum wage, individuals must work 80 hours a week. The city’s at-risk population in the community is struggling to meet the high cost of even basic housing here.
Paddy Cavanaugh, another housing stabilization advocate, meets with an average of 10-15 clients throughout the week. He helps clients obtain financial resources available to them.
Cavanaugh connects with clients in the community and at the HomeStart office in Boston at 105 Chauncy St. He guides them through housing goals, budgeting goals, and mental health goals. HomeStart’s prevention efforts helps their clients to not become homeless again.
“We make sure clients get the maximum food stamps and social security benefits. As well as the correct Medicaid or Medicare plan to cover all their medical needs,” said Cavanaugh.
Although Cavanaugh’s clients may receive the maximum amount of government benefits, obtaining affordable housing is still the main concern. “People cannot afford rent making minimum wage, doing unskilled labor, and working full time,” he said.
HomeStart offers housing vouchers to clients who categorize as “chronically homeless” through the shelter system. “You have to be chronically homeless, which means you have to have been homeless for 12 months in a row or four times over the past three years,” said Cummings.
She has helped housed clients through HomeStart’s voucher program, which helps cover clients housing fees such as the initial deposit and first and last months’ rent
“On average it costs $700 to prevent someone from becoming homeless and close to 30 thousand for emergency shelter funding,” said Cummings on yearly funds on housing prevention. HomeStart aims to help the formally homeless stay housed through prevention on housing eviction, housing court, and coordination with landlords.
Cummings expressed that legal barriers hold back the homeless population when applying to public housing. Issues such as Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) background checks can limit the homeless in their housing applications. “When somebody is struggling with their mental illness and trying to self medicate, even if they have been sober for five years or eight years, they still will be denied, just because they have a CORI,” said Cummings.
She recalls her participation in the “Housing Surge” event, where agencies working with homeless shelters help identify at-risk individuals. Boston Housing sets aside a specific amount of housing units for this event. Housing providers, such as HomeStart, help these individuals apply to public housing.
The program aims to help clients get housed within weeks of applying. They are connected to furniture banks, movers, and a housing advocates to alleviate housing stressors.
“It was a crazy emotional day doing in-takes for HomeStart. I meet with homeless individuals and collected background information on their disability and their reasons for becoming homeless. When client’s applications were accepted, the whole room would stand up and clap for them,” said Cummings.
“The hard part about working with this population, its all about little victories,” said Cummings through her experience with housing supports for her clients.
She discussed housing issues facing the homeless in Boston.