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Problem not solved

Much has been made of Governor Mitt Romney’s pledge to ease the homeless problem in Massachusetts — and indeed, he has done some good. He set up a special commission to identify ways to house the homeless permanently, and donated $10,000 of his own money to a Boston shelter. But if you think the governor has things under control, think again. Last week, the UMass Boston Center for Social Policy released a report, "Hard Numbers, Hard Times: Homeless Individuals in Massachusetts Emergency Shelters, 1999-2003," which outlines some troubling statistics. As many as 29,000 people spent time in an emergency shelter in 2003 — a 16 percent jump in just four years. The report offers a glimpse of how homeless adults — the bulk of the population — end up in shelters. And it shows just how empty the governor’s rhetoric can be. The Phoenix spoke with Brian Sokol, a co-author of the report, to talk about the Bay State’s homeless.

Q: What was most surprising about your findings?

A: It’s estimated that 29,000 people used the emergency-shelter system in 2003, which is far more than expected. People are using the shelters for a shorter period, and staying for one day or two days or three days. Therefore more people are using the system than in the past, and they are a more fluid group.

Q: Who are these homeless people?

A: It looks like more of our elderly rather than just the unemployed are resorting to homeless shelters, since those over 55 make up the fastest-growing sector of the shelter population. It also looks like more people who are educated — who have high-school degrees or college degrees — are using shelters. About nine percent of people in shelters have college degrees, which is significant; another 19 percent have some college education. So just because you have a degree, that’s no guarantee you can stay out of the homeless shelters.

Q: Why is this happening?

A: The housing market is an issue. Approximately 40 percent of homeless people are employed. But they report an income of just $970 per month, which is nowhere near the $801 rent for the average studio apartment in Massachusetts. In order to afford even the smallest apartment, you need to make $2670 per month. So the gap between people’s income and housing is growing. We asked people the reasons for their homelessness, and 60 percent said it was because of financial problems. About 25 percent attribute it to substance abuse and 10 percent to mental-health issues.

Q: So has our governor fulfilled his pledge to stop homelessness?

A: Apparently not. One of the governor’s big pushes is the chronic homeless, who are just a section of the population. They are most in need, the most disabled who have been using the system for the longest time. The push is to get them out of the system because they’re using a majority of resources. But if you only concentrate on them, you’re ignoring those who become homeless. And most people who entered the shelter system did so for the first time in 2002 and 2003.

Q: What should Romney take away from the report?

A: First of all, we saw a spike in people in emergency shelters who had no health insurance in 2003, which is a direct result of the budgets cuts in MassHealth [Medicaid coverage]. The administration created a program that was supposed to close the gap, but not everybody got back on the rolls, and not all services are covered. Today, 38 percent of homeless people have no health insurance. We say close the gap. The state has also cut homeless-prevention programs that helped people at risk of eviction access emergency funds to pay their rent so they wouldn’t lose their homes. That program should be brought back. Obviously, there’s a lot that can be done.

To see the "Hard Numbers, Hard Times" report, check out the UMass Boston Center for Social Policy Web site at www.csp.umb.edu/Massshelter.

Issue Date: July 16 - 22, 2004
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