Can we end homelessness?
That is the question that everyone should be asking as the economic recovery takes hold. With more than half a million people across the state living in poverty and scarce affordable housing options, some of the most vulnerable members of our communities are on the brink of homelessness.
All stakeholders — from the Commonwealth to service providers to the advocacy community — remain committed to solving the crisis of homelessness in Massachusetts. The current economic climate has made the work infinitely more challenging, but we’ve made meaningful progress. Just recently, Governor Patrick pledged to produce 10,000 new housing units annually, many of which will go to low-income families. Still, the problem of homelessness long precedes the most recent economic crisis, and it is worth asking if we need to revamp our entire system.
There will likely always be a need for shelters, and the shelter system is a vital part of the social safety net. But the truth is that if we worked in tandem with the shelter system to establish better prevention programs and more effective stabilization services, we could make real steps toward ending homelessness entirely. Programs that prevent individuals and families from becoming homeless in the first place have received little attention, but they may be the most effective – and cost-saving – way for us to substantially reduce the number of homeless individuals.
For nearly three years, HomeStart’s Court Intervention Project has worked in partnership with Boston Housing Authority to ease homelessness by preventi
ng evictions. Since 2010, HomeStart has worked with more than 300 households to preserve public housing tenancies. Advocates work one-on-one with at-risk tenants and in collaboration with BHA property managers and legal staff to create solutions that let people stay in their homes.
The program has been a tremendous success. CIP has ensured that over 600 adults and more than 500 remained housed and produced significant savings for BHA and the taxpayers. According to BHA, it costs the housing authority more than $10,000 to evict a tenant for non-payment of rent. The costs the housing authority incurs range from court filing fees and staff time spent on pursuing evictions to rent lost due to unit vacancy. In contrast, the amount of money it takes for the Court Intervention Project to preserve a BHA tenancy is a little more than $1500, which includes a $500 – $700 emergency rental assistance grant that HomeStart pays directly to BHA towards a tenant’s back rent owed.
In 2011, CIP preserved 140 BHA public housing tenancies. Even as the total number of BHA tenants facing non-payment eviction increased, the number of evictions that ended in homelessness decreased. We estimate the program’s tenancy preservation efforts reduced the number of non-payment evictions by as much as 61 percent and that the program saved taxpayers more than $365,000 last year.
CIP is an initiative of HomeStart’s Homelessness Prevention Program. Utilizing a combination of housing and stabilization services, advocacy, and flexible financial assistance, we have prevented 506 low-income families from becoming homeless. Strictly in terms of back rent owed, HomeStart can stop an eviction for as little as $568 per case on average. It would cost taxpayers roughly $30,000 if any one of those families ended up in a homeless shelter. The human cost of homelessness is much higher; for instance, the negative impact of homelessness on children can create poor health and education outcomes. As a society, we must do what we can to carry out a core belief that everybody should have a safe, warm place to call home. But it is important to note that this effort also makes good fiscal sense and has the potential to save the Commonwealth ever more resources. The best way to end homelessness is to stop it before it starts.
The answer to the question is yes, we can end homelessness, and one of the best ways we can do it is less costly to taxpayers and more helpful to the families we serve. Homelessness prevention is one approach — but it is an approach that needs greater visibility and yes, more resources. We could be doing even more — last year, HomeStart took in 4400 calls to our prevention hotline, but could only help 500 families. The cost-savings we’ve seen in our partnership with Boston Housing Authority demonstrates that additional support will be money well spent.
Linda Wood Boyle is president and executive director of HomeStart. Edward Frechette is chair of HomeStart’s board of directors.