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Boston Continues To Make Progress In Ending Chronic Homelessness, But There Are Barriers

The city of Boston is reporting good progress in its effort to end chronic homelessness by quickly matching people with housing and support services. But some barriers in the system remain.

Since July 2014, Boston has found permanent housing — with services tied to it — for 717 veterans who were homeless.

In January of this year, the city had 612 chronically homeless people in its emergency shelters. In the last eight months, it's housed 172 of them.

"These are the longest-term homeless folks in the city of Boston," said Laila Bernstein, adviser to the mayor for the Initiative to End Chronic Homelessness. "And when we calculated how many years they had been homeless collectively, we had ended 906 years of homelessness by housing these 172 people. They were homeless, on average, five years or longer."

Mayor Marty Walsh and his administration announced the Action Plan to End Veteran and Chronic Homelessness eight months after the October 2014 closing of the city homeless shelter and state-contracted detox and addiction treatment programs on Boston's Long Island. The programs were shuttered abruptly when the mayor learned the bridge to the island had been deemed unsafe.

The city opened a new homeless shelter for men on Southampton Street in January of 2015. It converted the Woods-Mullen Shelter from co-ed to women-only. Of the detox and addiction treatment beds that were on Long Island, a majority have been replaced at various locations in the city. But the several dozen remaining ones won't come online until next year.

This year, the city launched a new software program to match homeless people with available housing units. That's part of a new triage system, in which people are immediately assessed when they enter the emergency shelter system to determine what services they need and to identify housing.

The goal of the action plan is to end chronic homelessness by 2018. The mayor announced in January of this year that the city had ended chronic veteran homelessness, though a handful of veterans who have refused housing remain in the shelters.

Despite all of the progress, the emergency shelters are still full. Walsh says that is partly due to the opiate addiction crisis and partly because Boston has become a draw due to its good support system.

"If homeless people just keep coming from other parts of the country, at some point we're going to hit a ceiling where we're going to have a difficult time trying to house people," Walsh said at a round-table of city officials and homeless advocates Wednesday.

The city has held several housing "surges" to help people who are homeless work through the red tape of obtaining rental assistance vouchers and identifying landlords willing to take them. City officials say there's a shortage of those landlords.

"I think it's partly that it's a very tight housing market. It's an expensive housing market. These vouchers can only pay a certain amount. And partly there may be some trepidation [on the part of landlords]," Bernstein said, adding that the city needs to do a better job of raising awareness among landlords that the formerly homeless tenants have a support system backing them up. "In most cases, folks who've been homeless make tremendous tenants. They're very grateful for the housing and they take care of their apartments very well."

With housing vouchers, tenants typically pay 30 percent of whatever their income is toward rent, and the rest is subsidized.

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Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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