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With Quincy shelter facing move, nonprofit plans new approach to homelessness

The city-owned building housing the Father Bill's emergency homeless shelter is slated to be demolished to make way for a new public safety center.
The city-owned building housing the Father Bill's emergency homeless shelter is slated to be demolished to make way for a new public safety center.Atlantic Photo

Quincy officials plan to demolish the city-owned building where Father Bill’s and MainSpring operates an emergency homeless shelter, but are giving the nonprofit agency a 99-year lease on property across the street to build a new, smaller shelter and a homelessness prevention center.

The new Housing Resource Center, estimated to cost $20 million, would include 20 to 30 apartments for the chronically homeless in one building, and space for prevention and support services in a separate adjacent building.

The facility also would have an emergency shelter, but the focus would be on keeping people in their own homes, said John Yazwinski, president and CEO of Father Bill’s and MainSpring.

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“It’s much more cost effective, and humane, to get at [the problem] before people become homeless,” he said.

Yazwinski said he was concerned when the city began plans to build a new $100 million public safety facility at 38 Broad St., home to one of his agency’s two main homeless shelters. But he was relieved when city officials found an alternative site for the shelter and signed on to the concept of a preventive approach.

On Sept. 8, the Quincy City Council unanimously approved a 99-year lease costing $1 per year for 39 Broad St., a commercial building recently acquired by the city.

Yazwinski said the long lease allowed his agency to apply for state funds for the new project. If approved, construction could begin in a year with “best-case scenario, two to two and a half years to occupancy,” he said. Private fund-raising also would help pay for the project.

“We took a crisis and looked at it as an opportunity,” Yazwinski said. “We are really thankful to the city of Quincy, and the mayor, for believing in this model and making a long-term commitment to our most vulnerable neighbors, knowing that this is about not just managing homelessness but ending it.”

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Councilor-At-Large Anne Mahoney voted for the 99-year lease, but worried that there was no specific plan for the time between when the old shelter was demolished and when a new facility would open.

“Taking Father Bill’s offline does not mean that we will eradicate the problem that now exists,” Mahoney said. “The 99-year lease is the right thing to do. The bigger problem is there is no plan for how this is going to happen, and whether the city of Quincy will be paying for this relocation once, twice, how many times.”

She added that the pandemic is only making it more important to “slow our pace down” and be more transparent about all the costs of city projects.

Yazwinski said the city plans to demolish the building at 38 Broad St. before Father Bill’s new facilities can be built across the street, but he is optimistic about relocating to a temporary spot. The probable solution would be to renovate part of the building at 39 Broad St. for a temporary shelter, he said, but the nonprofit would need financial assistance.

Christopher Walker, chief of staff for Mayor Tom Koch, said at least $1.5 million in city money has been set aside for the temporary facility.

Father Bill’s and MainSpring have been providing help to the homeless since the 1980s, first as separate organizations and then merging in 2007. The agency assisted 6,740 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness in fiscal 2019 and operates two large shelters, in Brockton and Quincy, and other smaller spaces across southeastern Massachusetts, according to agency data.

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In Quincy, Father Bill’s Place sheltered 929 individuals last fiscal year. Among that number were 229 survivors of domestic violence, 127 veterans, and 142 elders — the fastest-growing demographic of homeless people, with a 77 percent increase over the last five years.

Yazwinski said the pandemic has been particularly hard on the homeless, and shelters have had to drastically decrease the number of beds to maintain social distancing, putting people in motels, tents, and empty gyms.

“We’ve been pivoting and moving, and trying to keep everybody safe,” he said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.