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Guest column: Shelters a bridge from streets to a home in Worcester

July 2023

Read the original article on Telegram & Gazette

Homelessness has been a critical concern of policymakers and the public for decades. The situation has become much more urgent in recent years, however, due to a dearth of affordable housing and the fallout from the pandemic, which includes surging rates of mental health and substance-use disorders.

Other contributing factors to the homelessness crisis include growing income inequality, job loss and unemployment, inadequate social safety nets, lack of affordable health care, domestic violence and systemic issues such as racial disparities and discrimination.

Our agency, Open Sky Community Services, is a nonprofit provider of behavioral health and human services.  Last winter, we coordinated with the City of Worcester, where homelessness has been increasing sharply, to operate the 60-bed Seeds of Hope temporary shelter at Blessed Sacrament Church. 

We experienced firsthand the myriad challenges that come with meeting the needs of this population, but our success – helping 83 people exit homelessness – showed that shelters can be an effective and important tool for connecting people to comprehensive supports and, ultimately, housing stability.

There are many ways to define a person who previously experienced homelessness as “housed.” The term includes those who are in permanent supportive housing, a housing option that is only available to individuals who have been chronically homeless. But it also includes those who rented a private unit without a subsidy or supports, as well as anyone who moved in with family or friends, signed a sober house lease, or moved into public housing. 

However you define it, the fact is that during its 102 days of operation from Dec. 19, 2022, through March 31, 2023, 83 people served at the Seeds of Hope shelter were housed. 

Importantly, 27 of those housed were chronically homeless – meaning they have a permanent disability and have been homeless for a full year or have experienced four episodes of homelessness over three years totaling more than 12 months – and have moved into permanent supportive housing where they will live and continue to receive services to manage their mental and physical well-being.  Research has demonstrated that 86% of people with permanent supportive housing will stay housed. 

Understanding these outcomes is important because they underscore the ideal role of the shelter in addressing homelessness.  The Seeds of Hope shelter employed a nontraditional model, deliberately focused on rapid rehousing, with an emphasis on providing supports and building trust, not providing emergency shelter for an extended period of time.

Seeds of Hope served all comers; it was required by the state to be a low-barrier shelter.  This contributed to its success and helps explain why the program staff and volunteers were able to constructively engage with so many people: 238 individuals sought a bed over the course of those 102 days.

Addressing homelessness requires a collaborative and coordinated approach.  Seeds of Hope succeeded because it was a community effort.  Our effort required the contributions of many players, including the willingness of Blessed Sacrament Church to try to make a difference, and both the city and state governments and many private-sector partners. 

We also had the support of many local residents, some of whom donated food and other essentials.

Admittedly, and even understandably, not every neighbor welcomed even a temporary shelter in their neighborhood.  We responded to the urgency of the situation, and that did not provide the luxury of time to familiarize neighbors to the concept in the way that we would have liked.  However, most neighbors supported the idea of housing and assisting fellow citizens, recognizing the potential for lasting change.

While Worcester and Massachusetts as a whole desperately need more permanent and affordable housing, it is important to recognize that housing alone will not solve homelessness. Services play a vital role in the equation.

We must create a bridge from the streets to a home. The shelter model can successfully be that bridge if we treat it not as simply temporary housing but as a hub of comprehensive services and supports.  This approach allows individuals to address the underlying trauma that led to their homelessness and embark on a new chapter in their lives. 

Let us continue working together to address homelessness, ensuring that everyone has access to safe, stable housing.

Kenneth J. Bates is president and CEO of Open Sky Community Services in Worcester.

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