COVID-19 has exposed the flaws in our society’s response to homelessness. When the highly contagious novel coronavirus was spreading across the country early last year, emergency shelters were packed to capacity with dormitory-style beds, many with overflow mattresses spread across floors. Individuals slept within three feet of one another at a time when personal space literally meant the difference between life and death. Communities across Massachusetts reported increases in people sleeping outside, given the need to reduce shelter capacity for social distancing and some individuals’ hesitancy about sleeping in a congregate shelter during the crisis.
As a matter of public health and moral principle, we must do better.
This is an opportunity to reenvision how we approach homelessness and protect our most vulnerable neighbors in a public health crisis. One potential solution is to acquire unused or underutilized properties such as hotels and convert them into permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Our organization, Father Bill’s & MainSpring, is in the process of partnering with the state and City of Brockton to purchase a hotel in Brockton to convert 69 rooms into efficiency-style apartments. This would reduce the city’s individual shelter population by 50 percent.
This is a relatively quick solution, and one that could be put to scale across Massachusetts. State and local governments must transition from the current system of overreliance on emergency shelters and grouping hundreds of people into single overcrowded buildings.
The conversion of hotels into efficiency apartments is being done on a larger scale in California, Oregon, and Washington. Hotel owners, seeing a sharp decline in travel due to the pandemic, are exploring opportunities to sell their properties at a time when there is a population in desperate need of housing.
For the past nine months, the hotel we are purchasing in Brockton has served as a satellite shelter, providing refuge to more than 60 individuals per night who are experiencing homelessness. Repurposing the hotel, which otherwise would have sat empty during the pandemic, allowed our organization to depopulate our main shelter in downtown Brockton, creating space for social distancing.
Many guests are elderly, immunocompromised, or at high risk with other medical conditions. The positive COVID-19 rate among our Brockton guests plummeted from an initial high of 30 percent to less than 1 percent after they moved into the hotel.
In Quincy, we are also partnering with city officials and utilizing a local hotel to depopulate our main shelter.
Once we purchase the Brockton hotel, we will install kitchenettes in each room to turn them into efficiency apartments. Case managers will provide individualized support to tenants, helping them remain housed and become more self-sufficient. This can include assistance securing employment or accessing health care and other community resources.
The national “Housing First” approach works. It prioritizes permanent housing to help individuals and families address the issues that had contributed to their homelessness. At Father Bill’s & MainSpring, we operate more than 550 permanent supportive housing units; 99 percent of our tenants stay housed for at least one year, while 93 percent stay housed for at least three years.
Converting existing properties is much easier than developing a new apartment building in an overheated real estate market. For example, it can take three years or more to site, finance, and construct a 25-unit building for homeless individuals. During that same time, dozens, if not hundreds, more individuals in that same community will become homeless and enter an already crowded and costly shelter system.
These conversions just got easier thanks to housing legislation enacted by Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature. The law, which lowers the threshold to change zoning rules for new housing, will play an important role as communities strategize for a post-pandemic environment where empty commercial properties could be quickly repurposed for residential space.
The efficiency of converting underutilized properties into housing is a game-changer, as well as a proactive and cost-effective approach to health care. A recent study by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation found that expenditures by MassHealth, the Medicaid program administered by the state, were lower for formerly homeless individuals in supportive housing than they were for individuals living in shelters and on the streets.
Turning hotels into housing works because it’s cost-effective, it can happen quickly, and it leads to better health care outcomes. But for the state to achieve this on a larger scale, to help our most vulnerable neighbors, it needs political good will and backing from local communities as well as funding and support from the private and public sectors.
In times of crisis, it’s always those who have the least who suffer the most. COVID-19 is no different. But we’re hopeful that this crisis can be a turning point in our fight to end homelessness.
John Yazwinski is president and CEO of Father Bill’s & MainSpring.