As Boston works to end homelessness across the city, many neighborhood groups have got-ten involved in the effort. On June 17, the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB), held a well-attended forum in Rabb Hall at the Copley Branch of the Boston Public Library for professionals to discuss the work they’re doing, as well as provide a platform for the commu-nity to express their thoughts and concerns on the topic.
Moderated by WBUR radio producer Lynn Jolicoeur, the panel for the forum included Jim Greene, City of Boston director of Emergency Shelters, David Leonard, President of the Bos-ton Public Library, Sheila Dillon, Chief of Housing and Director of Neighborhood Development, Dr. Jim O’Connell of Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program, Eric Leopvetsky, a Boston resident who was homeless for a decade, Lyndia Downie, President of Pine Street Inn, and Michael Stratton of the Boston Police Department.
Issues Faced by Homelessness Professionals
After a brief presentation from Jim O’Connell about his work and history with the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program, Lyndia Downie began the panel discussion by saying that data has changed the world of helping the homeless within the past few years. “We have a list of chronically homeless people, actively trying to house those people on a weekly basis,” she said. There is data that shows who has been homeless the longest, and those people are targeted first when it comes to deciding how to help them and match them to the programs that would benefit them the most.
Additionally, Downie said that they use a “much lower barrier” to get people into housing than they used to, so people have to jump through less hoops to get back on their feet. She said that 2.8 percent of the overall population is on the street, and the rest is in shelters. “The mayor’s been really committed on this issue,” she added.
Another issue with the homeless population in Boston is that healthcare professionals have been “caught off guard” by the opioid epidemic,” O’Connell said. He said that opioid overdose deaths started to become more prevalent around 2010, and it’s “not just the homeless, it’s all over,” he said. He added that while mediations to help with overdoses are “pretty much uni-versally available,” they have to figure out what the best ways are to get the medication to the people who need it.
“More and more people are coming into the city,” Dillon said. About 60 percent of people in shelters are from outside Boston, she said. This is the cause of another issue—“We want to be welcoming, but want other parts of the state to be more welcoming too.” She said a lot of the reason people come into Boston instead of seeking help where they’re from is that other places have a lot more rules when it comes to housing folks or even allowing them to come into shelters. “Boston doesn’t have those rules,” Dillon said. “People are coming because there’s good healthcare, good services.”
She said they are also working closely with the state to make sure that people being released from correctional facilities are not being discharged to the street. More transitional program-ming, including housing plans, are needed when people are coming from a house of correc-tions, she said.
“The streets are challenging,” said Jim Greene, when it comes to understanding who these people are and where they come from. “We frequently see people from all over [at Pine Street Inn], and he said there is a prevalence of untreated mental illness. Part of the job of Pine Street Inn is to “assess and assist the people out there,” he said. He urged residents to call 911 if there is an immediate medical or safety concern with a person out on the street, but if the is-sue is not dire or is a recurring one, people should call 311 to make officials aware of the prob-lem so they can properly respond.
“BPD has had to expand our role,” Michael Stratton said. He said officers have been trained for mental health issues, chronic homelessness, and how to better understand addiction and recovery. “Now we live by our partnerships,” he said. “Police might not know what to do; might rely on a certain partner (such as Pine Street Inn) to get people the help they need.”
From Tent to Permanent Housing: One Man’s Story
Eric Lepotevsky graduated from Northeastern University and worked two jobs while living in a Somerville apartment. After placing money into fragile investments, he lost it all in 2008. This left him out on the streets with nothing but his camping gear and bottles of alcohol. He also took up writing, and read aloud an essay he wrote in his tent at Franklin Park.
He chose to sleep outside instead of in a shelter because he said ti gave him the freedom to choose his own bedtime and make his own choices.
In April 2018, while sitting on a brick outside Shattuck Shelter, his life changed for the better. A receptionist he knew told him that Mayor Walsh personally would like to see him housed. Leopvetsky had been on the chronically homeless list, but he was finally going to receive hous-ing. He used to leave two hours before his appointments to complete paperwork, because he wants to make sure he was on time. He said he was unaware of all of the support he had from Pine Street Inn, and people from his own Native American community.
He said that homeless people are artists, lawyers, and doctors—“it could happen to any-body.”
Lepovetsky stressed saying “hello, how are you, have a nice day” to a homeless person can go a very long way.
Now, Leoptevsky lives in permanent supportive housing owned by Pine Street Inn.
Resident Concerns with Encampments, Noise, Housing Families
Many residents have concerns with the gathering of homeless people near their homes and on public property, particularly the Copley library. Officials recognize these concerns, but David Leonard said that the goal of the library is to not “judge who you are by what you see,” and “everyone who comes through the door is welcome.” He said that what makes a difference when engaging this issue is knowing the individuals who are out there.
“Over the last few years, we’ve assigned more resources [at the library],” Leonard said. He said they have “skilled individuals” working at the library to ensure people who want re-sources can access them. They turned a vacant librarian position into a “Health and Human Services” librarian, who can help provide these resources to people. They are not reserved only for those who are homeless, but also for people who may want to know how to help a homeless loved one. “We know that we’re making a small difference and that’s really important to us,” Leonard said.
A resident raised the question about what is being done for homeless families in the city. “There are no families living on the street,” Dillon said. There is a state-run system for helping homeless families, she said, and the city’s role is to build more affordable housing to ensure that families do not become homeless. She said that Boston currently has about 54,000 units of affordable housing in the city, which “is not enough. Every month we are looking at where we can site more affordable housing,” she said.
Downie added that Pine Street Inn finds partners for supportive housing, and currently has about 850 units of supportive housing throughout Boston and Brookline. Pine Street Inn turns 50 this year, and is making an effort to have 1000 units to celebrate its 50th anniversary. They have recently proposed building 226 units in Jamaica Plain on Washington St. “We’re very ex-cited about this project,” she said.
What Can You Do?
Another resident wondered how individuals can support helping the homeless. Lepovetsky said that people can give money directly to faith based groups or to organizations like Pine Street Inn instead of homeless people themselves.
“Support for programs for addiction treatment are critically important,” Greene said. Downie said that gift cards to places like Dunkin or CVS can be given directly to people or to organiza-tions as part of welcome baskets when people move into housing. “People struggle for things like first and last month’s rent,” she said. “We need to keep working as a community” to help these people out.
There was a comment about the nuisance some homeless people make when they set up tents, urinate and defecate on property, and get into fights. Officials take these issues seri-ously.
“We understand it’s a problem,” Stratton said, but urged people to call 911 if there is an im-mediate threat. Calls are recorded and mapped even if they’re not responded to immediately, he said. “We’re going to continue to do the best that we can. We welcome the calls, we wel-come the concerns.”
Greene said he is not a fan of the encampments either, and people who are not able to gauge the impact of their behavior “are not in a space to be more considerate.” He said that out-reach programs are “a priority,” and urged people to support Mayor Walsh’s efforts to rebuild the Long Island Bridge, which will restore much needed services to help these folks.
“Prevention and treatment would be the way to avoid this,” O’Connell said, but “we as a soci-ety have not invested in this. Homeless people are stigmatized,” and there aren’t enough beds out there for treatment, he said.
“If you don’t take the time to peel back the layers, it looks like the same problem,” Leonard said. “We are seeing one group comes in, help them, brings the numbers down, then a new group of people comes in.” He said that a lot of work is being done to house these individuals and get them the services they need, but it is an “ongoing problem that can only be solved systemically,” he said.
O’Connell said that “we need the housing, we need to be sure we provide the services to keep in housing and prevent evictions.”
“Hold us accountable,” Dillon said. “As a city, we need to think about the city we want to be.” She added that the city is working with the state to get more resources into other towns, which will take some of the pressure off of Boston.
Lastly, “Be a partner,” Downie said. “Have a dialogue, keep working with us. We’ve still got work to do.”