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The Podium

How we can help the homeless

Organizations that Help Homeless Individuals Deserve More Funding

In his State of the State address, Governor Patrick said, “we are the only state to guarantee emergency shelter, but too many people need it.” The governor is correct; too many people need emergency shelter. The governor was speaking of the right to shelter granted to homeless families but the truth is that homeless individuals — a young person aging out of the foster care system, an elderly widow on her own, or a veteran without a family — are not granted a similar right. Even more concerning, state funding for programs serving the individual homeless population has declined significantly during the past 13 years when adjusted for inflation.

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Forty programs across Massachusetts receive funding in the state budget to provide both shelter and services to homeless individuals. In FY 2001, total funding was $35 million, which, adjusted for inflation, is equivalent to $48 million today. But in FY 2014, only $40.5 million was appropriated — a decrease of almost 14 percent.

In the midst of this gap, this network of organizations serving homeless individuals has stepped up, not only handling some of the most difficult cases, but also utilizing funds traditionally used for shelter to invest in innovative programs to end homelessness.

While the popular perception is that these agencies simply provide emergency beds to individuals, the truth is they do so much more. Beyond offering food, shelter, and clothing, they assist in securing permanent supportive housing; provide health care and job training, placement and creation; and offer case management and treatment for mental health and substance abuse. It is these services that allow a homeless veteran to receive the treatment he needs for PTSD, or that assist a teenager aging out of foster care to access the job training she requires. They also make it possible for men and women to get back on their feet so that they can be integrated back into their communities. These programs are worth sustaining to keep the trend in the right direction.

The business community has also worked to support these organizations with additional funding and resources, because the homeless crisis isn’t just a social concern, but a business one as well. Boston is a an attractive place to do business and a desirable destination drawing visitors from around the world — partly because of the high quality of life here and our ability to take care of our most vulnerable residents.

The result has been a 24 percent decrease in the number of homeless individuals living on the streets or in shelter in Boston during the past decade. But we can and should do more. The City of Boston‘s recent census count showed a 3.8 percent increase in the number of homeless people living in shelters and on the streets — an increase that is at least in part the result of soaring rents and a still recovering economy.

To partially address the decrease in state funding and to ensure the region remains a vibrant place of business and tourism, a coalition of organizations is asking the Legislature to make a greater investment – an additional $8.1 million — in the emergency assistance network that provides critical shelter and services for homeless individuals.

A more effective and better-managed system is within our grasp with adequate state support. The Legislature and Governor Patrick should take this opportunity to reward these agencies that are not only helping to get individuals off the street in the short-term, but that are developing innovative programs and services that address the underlying factors that cause homelessness in the first place.

A withholding of state dollars at this critical point could jeopardize the tremendous success the system has achieved. Despite the positive 10-year trend, the recent influx of homeless individuals is a real concern and will impact broader systems. Chronically homeless individuals contribute greatly to overall healthcare and other emergency costs. An increase in the individual homeless population will influence how much the state pays in health care and other costs. It also negatively impacts business and tourism.

Restoring funding to 2001 levels adjusted for inflation is a reasonable step that can help prevent a crisis when it comes to the individual homeless population. The business community should also take the opportunity to continue to support these social services agencies that provide such critical support to our most vulnerable residents. The long-term outcomes — and savings — will be well worth the investment.

Mary Jo Bane is a professor of public policy and management at the Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the Pine Street Inn’s board of directors. John Hailer is chairman of the New England Council and president and CEO of Natixis Global Asset Management — the Americas and Asia.
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