Boston progresses in goal to end chronic homelessness, despite large inflow over last two years

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In a roundtable with the press on the morning of August 16, the City of Boston announced that their effort to house the chronically homeless population is seeing results, reducing the population by 20 percent since 2016.

Since 2016, the city of Boston has housed 580 chronically homeless individuals — the start of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s “Boston’s Way Home” initiative to end chronic homelessness by 2018. According to the city, the number of chronically homeless individuals without housing is currently 493.

Of the 612 chronically homeless individuals accounted for in 2016, only 76 individuals remain unhoused today. The city itself housed 287 of these individuals, and 249 managed to find other ways out of homelessness with the use of non-city services.

Laila Bernstein, advisor to the Mayor for the Initiative to End Chronic Homelessness, says Boston owes much of that success to its new coordinated access database.

“The way the system used to work, at best it was first come first serve for housing,” Bernstein said. “At worst it was housing available for people who knew how to navigate systems, which is usually folks who face fewer barriers.” The coordinated system tracks clients who enter the homeless services system, and helps match them with the providers they need. The data is also shared across different agencies.

Also heading the roundtable were Boston’s housing chief Sheila Dillon, Pine St. Inn’s executive director Lyndia Downie, and Joe Finn of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

Chronic homelessness, as defined by HUD, refers to individuals with disabling conditions who have either experienced continuous homelessness for one entire year, or have experienced homelessness four times within three years.

From 2016 to 2018, the city saw an additional 840 individuals enter chronic homelessness, an increase the city said it didn’t anticipate. Dillon and Downie said that these individuals were already existing shelter clients who met the criteria for chronic homelessness sometime after 2016.

“If you are in shelter for 366 days, you get on this list [of the chronically homeless],” Downie said.

Despite that increase, Boston still managed to lower the level of chronically homeless individuals to below the 2016 count.

Finn said that while the chronically homeless population tends to naturally increase due to longer shelter stays or new arrivals to Boston, the city has managed to curb that growth. “[What’s] amazing is that there’s this continuing trending down of chronic homelessness based on the number of housing opportunities that have been produced.”

Bernstein noted Boston is faring better than other major cities. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, between 2016 and 2017 the country has seen a 12 percent increase in chronic homelessness, and most major cities nationwide saw an average increase of 23 percent.

Of the remaining individuals experiencing chronic homelessness in 2018, about 286 have received priority status for housing efforts, and have spent over half of the last three years as homeless. The rest, Dillon and Bernstein said, are individuals who make more sporadic use of services and spent less than half the past three years homeless. While these 207 individuals are on the city’s list, they are also harder to find at times. Bernstein said the latter group may have more of a social support network that keeps them out of shelters, or may be in and out of hospitals or the criminal justice system. Some may even have found housing but never informed the city.

Boston has identified two sites on which they plan to build over 200 additional units of permanent supportive housing. (Dillon declined to disclose where the sites are located.) Permanent supportive housing refers to low-barrier, affordable units that offer access to healthcare and other services someone may need to maintain housing.

“There are people who need 24/7 care if they are going to succeed in housing,” Dillon said, highlighting the need to create more supportive units. The mayor has previously committed to raise $10 million from private donors to fund the creation of these units, and has already secured $2 million, according Dillon.

Downie said that former Pine St. Inn clients who secured housing have a 90 percent retention rate after one year. “That means a smaller group of people are bouncing back [into the shelter system],” said Downie. Bernstein also said the city has helped past clients who had problems with their housing find new homes.

Roundtable participants also pointed out that 50 percent of the chronically homeless are originally from outside Boston, adding that neighboring towns lack shelters or walk-in facilities that could help their local homeless populations.

“We need to grow the resource pot, and we need to have more communities building affordable housing,” Dillon said.

In 2016, Mayor Walsh announced the end of veteran homelessness, meaning the city reached a “functional zero” wherein more veterans were housed, or in the process of receiving housing, then were not. Dillon said that 2018 remains the goal to end chronic homelessness for individuals, but admits it could take longer due to the challenges presented by the inflow.

The 2018 point in time count found overall homelessness in Boston has decreased by three percent since last year. However, use of the shelter system did increase by one percent. Homelessness rose as a priority for Mayor Walsh after his sudden closure of the Long Island bridge in 2014, which at the time was the only access to the city’s largest shelter and several addiction treatment programs. The struggle to shelter those clients spurred the creation of the Southampton Street Shelter and the move to a housing-first model. The city has since replaced most of the shelter and recovery beds.