Editorial: HUD homeless picture: Out of focus

THE RECORDER
FEBRUARY 26TH, 2020

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently released its annual report on homelessness. In a press release, HUD states the data is crucial to “understanding the scope of homelessness and measuring progress toward reducing it.” But its conclusions are at variance with the local scene, according to Jay Sacchetti, senior vice president of shelter and housing with ServiceNet, which operates the homeless shelter on Wells Street in Greenfield.

According to HUD, Massachusetts had a decrease of 8 percent from 2018, including a decrease in the number of homeless families with children and a decrease in veterans’ homelessness. Sacchetti advises us to take that data with a grain of salt. “It’s not reflective of us,” he said.

First of all, the methodology is suspect. The report is based on a one-night “snapshot” taken by “tens of thousands of volunteers” nationwide. We don’t know how many of those volunteers were in Franklin County on that single night in January 2019, but we suspect they were largely concentrated in the eastern half of the state because the numbers don’t reflect our area.

In fact, said Sacchetti, “we’ve seen (homelessness) increase.” He cites a 20 percent increase in the number of people on the wait list for ServiceNet’s Wells Street shelter, aggravated by such stubborn contributing factors as limited public transportation and limited safe and affordable housing for low-income people.

Unfortunately, HUD is one in a long list of U.S. departments hollowed out by an administration that wants to cut funding for social services. One tactic has been to install heads who care about the president’s agenda rather than the mission of their particular agency.

In the case of HUD, President Trump appointed Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, to lead HUD even though Carson lacked prior housing, executive or government experience. In his two years leading HUD, Carson has dialed back civil rights enforcement at the agency and suspended Obama-era rules that had been aimed at fighting housing segregation and discrimination.

Carson drew controversy when his political team, many of whom were inexperienced, sought to triple the minimum rent paid by families receiving federal housing assistance and to make it easier for local housing authorities to impose more-stringent work requirements for those receiving government benefits. According to reporting by The Washington Post, the agency has hired at least two dozen highly paid political appointees without evident housing policy experience, accounting for a third of the 70 HUD appointees at the upper ranks of the federal government whose salaries top $94,000.

In his Message from the Secretary, Carson cites a need to “recalibrate policy” through partnerships with the faith community and the private sector as a way to move families out of homelessness. Dangling the prospect of public/private partnerships is a notorious tactic for deflecting actual funding, whether it be funding infrastructure or funding housing solutions. We have yet to see such partnerships materialize in any sector of the economy.

Here in Western Massachusetts, ServiceNet is trying to break the cycle of homelessness. “We don’t pay attention to these one-night winter counting studies,” Sacchetti said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the number of people who are couch surfing. There are people you don’t see, so we don’t really rely on the accuracy of these reports.”

We question whether HUD sent any volunteers at all to Franklin County for its one-night snapshot of homelessness and challenge HUD to reveal its actual coverage of our area for its annual report. Just like we are a long ways from Boston, we’re an even longer ways from Washington, D.C.

“Homelessness is a complex issue,” said Sacchetti. Unfortunately, reports like HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment do not serve to clarify it.

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