By The Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 6, 2009
Staff Writer

Christopher George, a 43-year-old homeless man well-known around Amherst, died Feb. 15 at an apartment where he was staying with several other homeless people. Those who run the town’s soup kitchen and others in social service programs knew the man and had tried to help him. They estimate there are 35 homeless people in town. Police routinely check on a tent camp where homeless are known to stay in a wooded area behind Big Y on University Drive. Efforts to create an emergency shelter in Amherst are under way.

Shelters are only a temporary fix, however. Coincidentally, a few days after Chris George died, the state announced a new initiative to end homelessness. That may be an overly ambitious goal, but it is the first comprehensive approach to homelessness in Massachusetts in many years, and may be the most significant since the 1970s when the closing of state mental hospitals added to the homeless population.

The goal is to get people into permanent housing and out of shelters. It is an aggressive approach that has generated some criticism from homeless advocates. However, with an estimated 2,700 families across the state living in hotels, motels and shelters, it is clear the system needs fixing. The state has set aside $8 million for a pilot program intended to serve these homeless families differently. One of eight regions of the state, western Massachusetts has received $1.1 million.

It is not the money that defines the new approach; it is the effort to coordinate otherwise disconnected services for the homeless.

A regional committee for western Massachusetts, chaired by Evan Dobelle of Westfield State College and including mayors and other civic leaders and leaders of social service agencies, will work to streamline state services and secure permanent housing for homeless individuals and families. Because western Massachusetts mayors and others have already been meeting to consider regional solutions to homelessness, the state is looking to our area for leadership in this campaign.

Within each region these leadership committees will try to break down the bureaucratic barriers that keep homeless people – or families on the verge of becoming homeless – from getting state help, in many cases because they do not fit the guidelines of the first state agency they come in contact with. State advocates for the program say they want to build a “no wrong door” approach, meaning that whatever public agency a family first approaches will be able point them in the right direction.

Those who work with the homeless population at different agencies will be cross-trained. The idea is to get all public agencies reading from the same script. Statewide, about 250 state employees have been pulled together to be prepared for their new roles in the interagency collaboration.

Part of the change in approach are new regulations that will move state support and supervision of shelter services from the Department of Transitional Assistance to the Department of Housing and Community Development. On paper, this means more resources available to get people into permanent homes more quickly. In reality, it also mean housing department case managers are suddenly going to be dealing with the homeless or near-homeless population with whom they have no experience. This will need careful monitoring. The regulations also toughen the current 30-hour work or school requirement as a condition for staying in a shelter and requires families in shelters to save 30 percent of their income as a way of building a fund toward a security deposit and a month’s rent. In this economy, saving may be harder than ever. Rules are needed, but flexibility should be the watchword.

What’s critical is that public and nonprofit social services agencies communicate well about the circumstances of different homeless families and individuals and adapt and adjust as needs require. There will be some who can follow no rules and fall outside of the programs available. Ultimately, they will present the campaign to end homelessness with its greatest challenge.

Just as the reasons for homelessness can be varied and complicated, the bureaucracy that works with homeless people is complex and entrenched. The state is undertaking a huge task. It is needed, but it will require bold new ways of thinking and acting to be a success.

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