Mayor Martin J. Walsh appointed Boston’s first special adviser on chronic homelessness Friday — part of an effort to fulfill his promise to house all of the city’s chronically homeless men and women.
Laila Bernstein, 34, has focused on homeless issues for the city for nearly two years and now says she plans to “scale up” efforts to get chronically homeless men and women off the streets by getting more businesses involved and improving coordination with state agencies.
“Laila has proven her capacity to lead the city and our partners through major reforms to the homeless response system, skillfully navigating the perspectives of diverse — and at times competing — stakeholders and bureaucracies,” the mayor said in a statement.
The goal is to eradicate chronic homelessness by 2018, and Walsh said appointing Bernstein as adviser to the mayor for the Initiative to End Chronic Homelessness will help Boston “reach our ambitious goals.”
Bernstein, of Jamaica Plain, said she hopes to work herself out of a job.
“That’s what’s great about having your job description in our job title: Everyone knows what you’re supposed to do,” she said. “And if you get it done, your job is over.”
Some city homeless advocates welcomed the news that Walsh created Bernstein’s position and applauded her appointment, seeing it as a continued commitment to eradicating chronic homelessness.
“The city is on it,” said Lyndia Downie, executive director of the Pine Street Inn. “The coordination has really gone from zero to 100 in the past couple of years, which has really helped to bring some of the numbers down.”
Already the city has put an end to chronic homelessness among veterans, housing 84 former servicemen and servicewomen in 2015, Bernstein said. Next on the mayor’s agenda are the elders who make up almost half of the city’s chronically homeless.
“We need to scale up,” she said. “We need to get more resources, more partners. We need to get more businesses involved. We need to get better coordinated with our faith partners. Better coordinated with the state.”
Chronically homeless men and women are those who have been without an address for more than a year and often have physical disabilities or struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues.
They tend to bounce between shelters, emergency room visits, hospital stays, and detox treatment, advocates say. But each of those systems tend to operate “in our own little world,” Downie said.
Not any more.
The mayor’s office helped create a data-sharing agreement so providers are able to see where people are staying and for how long. “That unto itself,” Downie said, “is a huge milestone.”
But information sharing takes place offline too, when city and state agencies as well as shelter and medical providers gather every two weeks.
“And they look at the list,” Karen LaFrazia, executive director of St. Francis House, said, referring to a spreadsheet containing the names of each of Boston’s 600 chronically homeless men and women.
LaFrazia said the group goes through the list, asking: “Who knows this person? What are the barriers to this particular individual getting into housing? It’s that’s level of detail.”
Housing barriers, advocates say, are both personal and systemic.
The key to ensuring chronically homeless men and women remain in their homes is providing them with a supportive environment, so permanent housing often comes services such as on-site counseling, job-readiness training, and medical care. But finding an affordable place to live in a city with exorbitant rental costs is also an obstacle to long-term housing.
About 40 percent of all chronically homeless people statewide live in Boston, said Jeffery Hayward, chief of external affairs at the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, which is part of a statewide effort to end chronic homelessness.
More than 250 men and women have been placed in stable, supportive housing in the first year of the state’s “pay for success” initiative — 50 more than the initial goal, Hayward said.
“We find it a big, big challenge getting folks housed in Boston-proper and most of that is because of the cost of housing,” he said.
The initiative is a partnership between the United Way, Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance, and Corporation for Supportive Housing.
The only way to solve the problem of chronic homelessness, Hayward said, is when mayors “roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, and Walsh has shown that.”
This is work that can’t be done in isolation, he said, adding: “Otherwise it would be a waste of resources.”Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.