May 14, 2014

A decade later, face of homelessness is changed in region



(Photo by Father Bill Pomerleau)

By Father Bill Pomerleau

SPRINGFIELD –Ten years after a group of homeless individuals and their advocates erected a tent encampment on the grounds of St. Michael’s Cathedral, the profile of homelessness in western Massachusetts has dramatically changed.

A May 13 vigil and press conference was held on the lawn in front of the cathedral by homeless advocates, who sought to commemorate the 2004 “tent city” and remind the public of the current state of homelessness in the area. While homeless individuals have found some form of housing that keeps them off the street, a growing number of homeless families in the region are languishing in motels, according to those working on the social problem.

On May 13, 2004, up to 70 homeless men and women, organized by the activist group Arise for Social Justice, brought tents, cooking utensils and other materials to the cathedral grounds, dubbing their encampment “Sanctuary City.”

                             (Photo by Father Bill Pomerleau)

Although the Diocese of Springfield was not officially advised beforehand of the plans by the sometimes-provocative Arise, the church took no measures to evict the campers. Six months later, city officials helped negotiate the transfer of the encampment to the grounds of the Open Pantry-Open Door social service agency, which had initially given support to the campers. Three months later, the Open Pantry arranged for the relocation of the campers from its grounds.

In 2004, several dozen homeless individuals would regularly wander the streets of Springfield and other western Massachusetts communities. While many would stay overnight at the Friends of the Homeless shelter on Worthington Street and other facilities, some found it difficult to find a place to sleep in the winter months.

The closure of The Warming Place, an overflow shelter hosted at St. Francis Chapel, Christ Church Cathedral and other sites, and dissatisfaction with the management at the Worthington Street facility, provoked Arise and their allies to erect their protest encampment in 2004.

On the night of Jan. 29, 2014, an estimated 350 individuals in Hampden County did not have permanent housing, according to an annual homeless census compiled by the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. That total number of mostly chronically homeless individuals has remained constant in the last decade, while factors which contribute to their homeless remain largely undiminished.

For example, in 2005, 68 of the homeless individuals in Greater Springfield were considered severely mentally ill, according to an annual statistic compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD. Ninety-eight men and women had chronic substance abuse. In 2013, 227 homeless individuals were severely mentally ill, while 183 were substance abusers.

But the number of unsheltered individuals has dropped in recent years. In 2014, 238 Springfield-area individuals were in a homeless shelter, while 112 were in transitional housing. Only 34 were unsheltered.

In the other three counties of western Massachusetts, 152 individuals were in shelters, and 300 in transitional housing. Only 38 individuals in Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin County were considered unsheltered.

(Photo by Rebecca Drake)

“Some good work has been done, but the shelters are still full,” said Michaelann Bewsee (pictured at left), director of Arise.

Speaking at the May 13 press event in front of the cathedral, Bewsee acknowledged that there are now very few homeless individuals on the streets. But she stressed that the 274 “chronically homeless” individuals who have been in shelters with supportive services in the last decade need to move on to permanent housing.

“We should credit Arise with bringing attention to issue of individual homelessness. It helped bring about change, including the expansion of the Friends of the Homeless Shelter and new services,” said Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of the Catholic Charities Agency of the Springfield Diocese.

But staffers at Catholic Charities, which had been involved in various efforts to reduce homelessness for decades, are less optimistic about the situation of homeless families, whose numbers are rising as governmental budget cuts and new regulations make it increasingly difficult for providers to move them out of motels.

“We did get people off the street, but then the system moved on to do away with all the congregate shelters for families. There was lots of optimism about Rapid Rehousing,” explained Buckley-Brawner.

Rapid Rehousing, often promoted under the slogan “Housing First,” was a strategy promoted by HUD and HUD-funded state and local agencies. It diverted government money from group shelters to support services provided by agencies like Catholic Charities, which worked to rapidly find housing for families on the brink of homelessness.
For example, a, HUD grant sent Catholic Charities workers to the Springfield Housing Court to negotiate an orderly move of families evicted from their homes for non-payment of rent into new apartments.

But most of the Housing First funding came from the 2008-2009 federal stimulus bill, which funded a variety of infrastructure and social programs after the 2008 housing market crash. By 2011, most of that money had dried up, Buckley-Brawner told iobserve.

The June 2011 tornado in Springfield, which permanently removed 500 units of moderately priced housing from the city, has driven up area rents and made rehousing the homeless even more difficult, she added.

                                                             (Photo by Rebecca Drake)

HUD statistics on Greater Springfield’s homeless population are dramatic. In 2005, the city and its suburbs had 79 families with children, or 239 people, without permanent housing. In January 2011, that statistic had risen to 248 families, or 734 persons.

Six months after the tornado, the numbers had risen to 560 families, totaling 1,722 persons. Shifts in funding and government policies led to the closure of several area shelters, such as the Jefferson Avenue Shelter for women and children in Springfield’s North End and Broderick House in Holyoke.

New government rules designed to discourage dependency on government have also made it more difficult for the homeless to make the transition into unsubsidized, private sector housing, noted Catholic Charities staffer Laura Saponare.

“To get into a family shelter, you have to prove that you were made homeless by something that wasn’t your fault, like a fire or domestic violence. If you were evicted for not paying your rent, you have to prove that you were unable to pay. The process is anything but rapid,” Saponare said.

Today, there are 235 families in shelters in the Springfield area, while only 42 families are in some sort of transitional housing. Most families with severe housing needs – 422 families at last count – are living in area motels.

Even getting families into motels in an emergency has become difficult, Saponare explained.

She cited the case of a home-owning local family. The father is employed, and his children attend Catholic schools. When their family home was destroyed by fire, the Red Cross placed them in an area motel. They were then required to replace all of their destroyed personal documents, or face eviction from the motel after 30 days.

Even though the family members have been U.S. citizens for several years, the federal government wanted birth certificates from their country of origin before they could replace their naturalization papers. And the naturalization papers we were required before they could prove eligibility for assistance programs.

According to the website of the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, it costs $345 per person to replace a set of naturalization papers. The average processing time is six months.

“I finally managed to get them an extension so we could have 60 days to replace the paperwork. Otherwise, they’d be on the street,” Saponare said.

During their press event, Arise released a letter it had written to Pope Francis and Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell stating that “the Diocese of Springfield owns a great deal of unused, vacant property.

“Some of these properties could be placed in the service of the poor as shelters, community centers and housing,” the letter said.

Both diocesan spokesman Mark Dupont and Buckley-Brawner questioned Arise’s contention, pointing out that most vacant properties in the area are churches and are very difficult to convert into housing.

“Sometimes what appears to be an available or suitable building isn’t really available or suitable. Our buildings are old, and sometimes just the environmental remediation makes the project unviable,” said Buckley-Brawner.

(Photo by Rebecca Drake)

In 2005, the diocese briefly placed incoming newly arrived Somali refugees in the former Holy Family Convent in Springfield. They were quickly relocated when it was discovered that the building, despite appearances, had unacceptable levels of lead paint.

The diocese did manage to make the former Blessed Sacrament Church on Dwight Street available for conversion into the North End Youth Center. Even though the building was sold at a discount, it took several years from the center’s management to acquire the vacant church and convert the building into a community center.

The former St. Jude Rectory in Indian Orchard is now owned by the Greater New Life Church, which operates a transitional housing facility for women.

In Springfield, even groups with the resources to acquire a church-owned property and convert them into housing face an additional obstacle. Mayor Domenic Sarno has expressed vocal opposition to the establishment of any new congregate housing in the city. The city’s post-tornado redevelopment plans only include market-rate housing.

“Lots of people fear the term ‘affordable housing.’ But we need some kind of assistance so that lower- and working-class residents of our area can move into housing they can afford,” said Buckley-Brawner.