The fourth annual Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) Homelessness Task Force Educational Forum returned Wednesday, Sept. 27, to the Copley Branch of the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Hall.
This year’s program, called “Model Strategies to Prevent Homelessness and Attract the Homeless from the Street,” included guests Sheila Dillon, the city’s Chief of Housing and director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH); Ben Phillips of Beacon Communities Development, a Boston-based multi-family development and management company; Andy Waxman, regional vice president of real estate development for The Community Builders, Inc. (TBC); Lyndia Downie, the Pine Street Inn’s president and executive director since 2000; and Matthew Pyne, who leads the Pine Street Inn’s supportive housing services programs. Lynn Jolicoeur, a field producer, reporter, editor, and fill-in host at WBUR, moderated the program, which included a panel discussion with the guests.
David Leonard, president of the BPL, which has partnered with NABB on the homeless forums since their inception, offered opening remarks. “We want a city that’s livable but that serves those with the greatest needs,” he said.
Leonard pointed to the planned redevelopment of three BPL branch libraries, including the West End Branch Library, to include an affordable housing component, which he described as “a small way we’re contributing to help solve the problem.”
While discussing the pervasive problem of homelessness in Boston, Jolicoeur described Mass. and Cass. as the place “where the tragedy of the opioid crisis is most visible,” often manifesting itself in a difficult cycle where as soon as people living there are placed into supportive housing, others flock to the area to take their place and “more tents go up.”
But besides Mass. and Cass., Jolicoeur said the unhoused can be found in every neighborhood of the city, including in the Back Bay and Downtown Crossing, along with “the streets and woods of most communities in Massachusetts.”
Around 30 percent of the 15,507 homeless people living throughout the Commonwealth are found in Boston, according to a January 2022 count cited by Jolicoeur.
“Shelters should be short stopovers where people can get on the pathway to permanent housing,” she said, adding that occurrences of homelessness, when they happen, should be rare and brief.
Dillon provided Boston’s 2023 housing data, which indicated that about 19.2 percent, or 57,404 units, of the 299,430 units citywide are income restricted. And of these income-restricted units “10,309 units are permanent supportive housing or deeply affordable housing units/beds dedicated to the formerly homeless,” according to the city.
Boston’s ‘on-street’ numbers for the city (i.e. individuals actually sleeping on the street, are reportedly as low as 3 percent now, as opposed to San Francisco, where street numbers are as high as 54 percent.
In another encouraging trend, homelessness has decreased around 20 percent over the past five years in Boston, while it has increased 5 percent nationwide, according to the most recent Congress report.
But despite how well Boston appears to be faring compared to some other major cities when it comes to homelessness, the street count in Boston’s 2023 homeless census spiked 42 percent from last year, with 169 individuals this year, compared to 119 individuals in 2022.
The homeless census also saw a nearly 20 precent increase in individuals in emergency shelters as the number climbed to 1,343 from 1,121 last year.
The same study showed that individuals in transitional housing were up nearly 8 percent from last year, with 256 this year as opposed to 238 in 2022.
The number of families in emergency shelters was also up almost 22 percent as the number climbed to 1,129 from 929 last year, according to the study, while in contrast, the number of families in transitional housing was down more than 92 percent, with the number falling to two from 26 last year.
Dillon said these number could continue to rise with an ongoing uptick in evictions as moratoriums put in place during COVID continue to expire, and as more migrant families are coming to Boston and Massachusetts and using the existing shelter system. (As the state and city continue to work “hand in hand” to help migrants obtain work authorization and secure employment, Dillon said she expects more migrants will transition into stable housing.)
Looking to the future, Dillon predicted that changes to the city’s Inclusionary Development Policy (IDP) approved by the City Council earlier on the day of the forum, which will require developers to designate a higher percentage of its units as affordable rentals, would reap significant results in the future.
“I think we’re going to see some really important things from this policy change,” said Dillon, although the proposed IDP changes still need to go the city’s Zoning Commission for final approval.
Permanent supportive housing has proven to be an effective means of getting people off the street and into stable living situations, according to participants in the forum.
Permanent supportive housing, as defined by Phillips of Beacon Communities, is independent living that offers residents wraparound services, including “direct access to primary and mental health care.” These residents enter into a lease as a tenant and fall into two categories – Housing First, which has low barriers for entry; and Coordinated Access, which “prioritizes the most vulnerable,” said Phillips.
One recent example of a successful permanent supportive housing project in Boston is Beacon Communities’ redevelopment of the old YW Boston (formerly YWCA Boston) headquarters at 140 Clarendon St. in the Back Bay into affordable housing, with 111 of its 210 units going to individuals who were previously homeless.
Existing residents were also retained “by and large” after the building’s redevelopment, said Phillips, as the former hotel space was transformed into affordable housing. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston has also stayed on as a tenant of the building and now offers discounted tickets to residents, he added.
Another likely reason for the success of the redevelopment of 140 Clarendon St. is that the Pine Street Inn has partnered with Beacon Communities to provide wraparound services to tenants there.
Unlike other affordable housing project where the developer is paired with a service provider, by chance Pine Street Inn was handpicked by Beacon Communities as the service provider for 140 Clarendon St., said Phillips.
“I’m amazed at the comprehensive service package that Pine Street Inn delivers and brings to the table,” said Phillips, adding that this package includes peer counseling, overnight staff, and prompt access to emergency services.
The city now has 501 more units of permanent supportive housing in the pipeline via two projects – Community Builders’ plan to transform a Comfort Inn hotel at 900 Morrisey Blvd. into 99 units of permanent supportive housing for individuals 62 and older who are exiting homelessness; and 126 units of mixed-income housing, 70 of which will be permanent supportive housing for individuals transitioning out of homelessness, at 41 La Grange St. per a proposed development by the Planning Office of Urban Affairs in partnership with St. Francis House.
While he hailed permanent supportive housing as the most effective means of combatting homelessness, Pyne of the Pine Street Inn said the chronically homeless who have been living on the street for more than a year need a higher level of services through supportive housing.
The Pine Street Inn successfully placed 98 formerly homelessness individuals into permanent hosing through collaborative efforts last year, said Downie.
But despite this promising trend, both men’s and women’s shelters in the city are now at capacity, said Downie, and while shelters do typically reach capacity each year, this usually doesn’t occur until the colder weather sets in.
All Boston shelters are “wet,” said Downie, meaning that guests don’t have to be sober or on medication to stay in one, although open drug use or consumption of alcohol isn’t permitted there either.
“But sometimes, even that’s too much,” Downie said of some homeless individuals who opt to live on the street, rather than abiding by the rules of a shelter, which can sometimes overwhelm them.