As the city of Boston prepares to conduct its annual homeless census on Feb. 23, we would like to extend a challenge: Let’s end homelessness in Boston.
This may seem like a lofty goal, but Boston’s street homelessness rate, as measured by last year’s census, was under 4 percent. By comparison, San Francisco, roughly the same size of Boston with a similar high cost of living, has a street homelessness rate of over 60 percent.
The city and its homeless service providers are equipped with the knowledge of what it takes to end homelessness. We must continue to expand supportive housing options throughout the region that can help support our most vulnerable residents. American Rescue Plan Act Funds could be used to jumpstart the process.
Supportive housing is a proven method; Pine Street Inn’s retention rate in housing — homeless individuals who move into housing and stay housed — is 95 percent. Housing doesn’t solve every problem, but it gives residents a platform of stability. For many, housing is the first step in successfully navigating their journey from the streets or shelter to a home of their own. Housing, coupled with support services — including connections to medical and mental health resources, job training, and jobs — enables individuals to rebuild their lives, reconnect with families and communities, achieve economic mobility and better health outcomes — and reclaim their dignity.
Pine Street Inn is accelerating supportive housing initiatives with projects in development at 140 Clarendon St. in Back Bay in partnership with Beacon Communities, and at 3368 Washington St. in Jamaica Plain in partnership with The Community Builders, for a total of 251 new units of supportive housing, a scale necessary to move the solution forward.
Working in partnership with Pine Street, the Yawkey Foundation recognizes the challenge of homelessness does not begin and end at Boston’s city line. In addition to supporting Boston-based nonprofits working to end homelessness such as Pine Street, St. Francis House, Rosie’s Place, and Family Aid, the Yawkey Foundation also provides grants to those working outside of Boston — high-impact organizations such as Father Bill’s & Main Spring in Quincy and Brockton, and others in Malden, Lawrence, and on Cape Cod.
We have learned, through our decades of work to solve homelessness, that there is no one cause, and thus no one simple solution to ending homelessness. Individuals become homeless for many reasons — loss of a job, mental illness, substance use, health issues, or any combination of these, are just some of the causes. We know that to solve this complex issue, we need multifaceted approaches, whether prevention initiatives, or moving individuals directly from the streets to housing, bypassing shelter altogether.
The convergence of homelessness, mental illness, and substance use disorder in Boston reached a pivotal moment in 2021 with the tent encampment at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard at the forefront of debate and discussion. But let’s be frank — homelessness existed in Boston long before Mass. and Cass illustrated the problem on a very visible scale.
Let’s use what we’ve learned as a springboard for avoiding repeats of this situation. There are many individuals and organizations searching for, and contributing to, solutions to homelessness.
The issue of homelessness is complex but solving it is possible. Boston has what it takes. Let’s work together — individuals, businesses, policymakers, all of us — to invest community resources in proven strategies that will make ending homelessness a reality. In doing so, we can make Boston among the cities to end homelessness. We know it can be done.
Lyndia Downie is president and executive director of the Pine Street Inn. The Rev. Ray Hammond is a trustee of the Yawkey Foundation.