Homelessness On The Decline In Boston

A permanent room used to house a person who was chronically homeless. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

A permanent room used to house a person who was chronically homeless (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

BOSTON — It seems counter-intuitive, with foreclosures still climbing and unemployment still high, that homeless shelters aren’t bursting. But in fact, The Pine Street Inn is quietly closing shelters, according to Lyndia Downie, the president of the inn.

“For the first time since I can remember, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years, we’ve actually taken down shelter beds. Instead of the number growing, we’ve actually been able to say we’re not putting up more shelter beds, we’re taking them down,” Downie said.

On Tuesday the inn closed the Boston Night Center, an emergency shelter which had 55 beds for men and women. Earlier this year it shut down over 100 beds at a shelter in Dorchester. Overall there is a 24 percent decrease in shelter demand in the city, which mirrors a national trend.

A New Approach To Homelessness

The decline is due to a new approach called Housing First, which turns the model for dealing with the problem on its head.

Over the past few years, The Pine Street Inn placed about 200 chronically homeless people, who have lived on the street for an average of 10 years and have serious mental illnesses. They didn’t have to fill out housing forms, get sober, or even take their medication. Downie says “eligibility” is the old way of thinking about addressing homelessness.

“This really reverses that completely, and says, ‘we are going to put you in housing and while you are in housing we are going to work with you on how to make your meals, we’re going to talk with you about medication, we are going to work with you about staying sober.’ It’s really a very different philosophical approach,” Downie said.

The Pine Street Inn runs 550 units of permanent housing in 29 locations in Boston and Brookline. One of these units is the Wish Program, which has 10 permanent rooms for women with mental illness.

“The rooms are single rooms, they all have locked armoires, every room has a TV,” said Debbie Ouimete, who runs the program. She said the rooms are like those in a college dorm with a shared kitchen.

Almost 90 percent of the people in this type of program stay for at least three years.

The Benefits Of Permanent Housing For The Homeless

The strategy of moving resources away from emergency shelters to permanent housing is happening statewide, and has reduced the individual homeless populations in Framingham, Worcester and Springfield. Family homelessness is at a 30-year high because of the recession.

The new approach is also saving the state money – nearly $2 million a year from Boston alone. That’s because if people are in permanent housing, they use fewer emergency services, such as shelters and the emergency room.

Jim O’Connell, of Boston Health Care for the Homeless, says he now sees people in their homes.

“What’s really remarkable when they get into housing is that struggle, that daily struggle to survive outside is gone, and much of that attention and the priority turns to themselves and how they can take better care of themselves,” O’Connell said.

Downie thinks of one man, Joe, who has lived on the street for 25 years and is mentally ill. She asked him to come and take a look at a room where he could live permanently.

“And he said, ‘I don’t really want to go. I’ve lived here a long time, I’m perfectly happy.’ So he went up to the top floor in the building, and took his bags, and said, ‘Oh, this is better than I thought,’ shut the door and he slept for 48 hours, and we thought, ‘Oh my God is he OK,’” Downie said.

When staff got the door open, they found Joe’s bed untouched and Joe sleeping on newspapers on the floor.

“And he said, ‘Yeah, I think this is going to work out for me,’ and staff said, ‘We were really worried about you.’ He said, ‘I’m exhausted and I haven’t had a good night sleep for 25 years.’”

Downie says she knows homelessness won’t be fixed entirely, but the reduction in shelter beds proves this new model works. Downie says, by housing chronically homeless people like Joe, they have a more stable life and the state saves money.

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  • http://www.openeyesvideo.com Glenn Koenig

    Fantastic story! Thanks for reporting. I put a link on Facebook and will send one to other friends I know. There is so little “positive news” around it seems, but in fact plenty of worthwhile things are going on, typically unnoticed.

  • Peng Hardin

    Pine Street may be seeing decreases in demand but Hope Found is still having to turn people away every day because there’s not enough beds for everyone who needs one.

  • http://www.mbhp.org Chris Norris

    Excellent story, and great work by our colleagues, but homelessness is only down among individuals. Family homelessness continues unabated despite ongoing efforts, and Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership is only able to serve a portion of the families eligible for assistance.

  • thomas finn

    this whole article is a fraud perpertrated by the monopolistic non-profit known as the Pine Street Inn. Nightly people live in the streets,shuffling along to avoid hassle from the police,sleeping in culverts, and couch surfing from relative to relative or friend to friend. Some are deliberately banned bhy this very non-profit agency to struggle on their own to survive weather conditions,exhaustion, and other assaults and /or indignities upon their person while the administrators with homes and comfortable salaries lie warm, self-satisfied, and lieingly righteous in their own beds.-Tom

  • http://www.emo-ed.com Mary McLaughlin, PhD

    I cannot help but wonder whether this video had something to do with closing the Night Shelter http://bit.ly/9V0FC4

    Also wonder whether novel by Boston street outreach worker, former Pine Street Inn counselor Steve Sundberg entitled “Street Logic” contributed to decision re: “housing first.”

    There is great value to media and social media. If you are homeless, check out empowering new website http://www.wearevisible.com

  • http://www.nuestracdc.org David Price

    Housing First can only work if there are supports in place at the housing. The DMH system of case-management is pretty hands-off. That puts the burden on owners, like my nonprofit company Nuestra Comunidad, who have to pay for service coordinators to work with residents of SRO housing. I think that Pine Street Inn does this pretty well, but most owners don’t have the resources, expertise and scale to make Housing First work.

  • Lacey Stone

    Does anyone know which Pine Street location they are referring to? ..there is a Bowker Night Center by the JFK stop and a Pine Street Inn off Harrison in the South End.

  • E

    Lacey – Pine Street Inn has a number of emergency shelters, including the Men’s and Women’s Inns at the South End/Harrison Ave location. The Boston Night Center was elsewhere (I’m not sure where). The main Harrison Ave shelter is not being closed.

    David – I agree…Housing First requires intensive supportive stabilization services. I can’t speak for all Housing First programs (Pine Street is not the only organization that has implemented this model of housing program), but Pine Street has a very high level of case management with 24-hour support. The reality of housing individuals with severe (often untreated) physical health, mental health, and substance use issues who have been living on the streets for decades is not always pretty, that’s for sure. It can be a really vicious cycle and we’ve got to break it somewhere. Ultimately the issue with homelessness is lack of housing and I believe programs that actually house are on the right track.

  • http://www.homelessinalaska.org Fletcher Fuller

    You are on the right track. Let’s give american the right to register to vote in all 50 states. They have lost hope in the Americal dream. I will support a change to the Bill of Rights for all legal Americans in the USA to allow peisoners to register to vote. Street people need hope, Now, not next week, or next year. It;s time to address the problems we have caused over the years.

    Fletcher Fuller (907)-337-1149

  • thomas finn

    listen, I was banned by the supervisor, Fred Lee of the Boston Nightmare Center due to the incident one night when some ego or drug driven gang member choose to attack me forcing me to back up into the street whereby the cop on duty seeing unusual movement and four more people try to surround me stepped from his unmarked vehicle to intervene. hence, when these clowns attempted to turn on him ;he then called for back-up which caused nine police officers to come running to assist their fellow officer. the clown posse scattered leaving one of them under arrest. however, there was an accolyte or wanna-be left behind who promptly kept a barrage of threat to my life that this young aggressor promised would occur when the denizens are kicked to the streets at 5a.m. the next morning. I,in no uncertain terms objected to his plan both colloquially and vociferiously in NO uncertain terms. leading a worker at the nightmare center to kick me out. when this got back to supervisor Fred Lee, he summarily pronounced that I would be banned for an “indeterminate amount of time”. I know because I returned and was informed of this. When I sought a means to object and the staf structure of the Pine Street Inn so that I could lodge a grievance there was no means by way of the internet nor was I able to go there since I was declared persona non grata. So answer me this,”Who is B.S.ing Who?” by the way “have a nice day!” and other fantasies.-Tom

  • Nat White

    You’ve got to be kidding.
    This isn’t for real.

  • Ducky

    my name is michael sears i lived a on the street at the cambridge i am homeless in the cambridge aerea please help to me aloha to mahalo 

  • Ducky

    my name is michael sears aloha hi i living out the street i am homeless i liven the street please help to me mahalo smile to you.

  • Ducky

    i am michael sears is a homeless in the cambridge mass.

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