‘NO BACKUP OPTION’: SHELTERS AT THEIR LIMITS DURING WINTER
BY JACQUELYN VOGHEL
SATURDAY, JANUARY 19TH, 2019
THE DAILY HAMPSHIRE GAZETTE
Four years ago, those seeking refuge at Grove Street Inn spent about four to six weeks on the shelter’s waiting list. Now, that wait is closer to eight weeks, or 10 during the winter, according to Katie Miernecki, director of the ServiceNet Hampshire County Shelter & Housing Division.
As temperatures drop below freezing, winter is a particularly dangerous time for the homeless community. But when local resources are at their limits, those on waitlists are in danger of being left in the cold. “There is no backup option” in terms of finding another bed, said Josh Wren, a peer housing specialist at Hampshire County Resource Center. “Post-shelter, pre-housing, they have to wait outside.”
At Grove Street Inn, Miernecki said that shelter staff tries to accommodate everyone when the temperature drops below 15 degrees, filling the shelter beyond it’s 21-person capacity. The shelter is closed during the day and accommodates people for up to three months.
But staff have to turn people away “almost every night that it’s not below freezing,” Wren said.
Currently, around 80 people are on Grove Street’s waitlist, also representing a rise from the usual. And Grove Street Inn isn’t alone in this struggle.
Staff at other shelters in western Massachusetts have also noticed an increased number of people on their waiting lists, said Jay Sacchetti, senior vice-president of Shelter & Housing of ServiceNet, a Northampton-based mental and human services organization that manages shelters in Northampton, Greenfield and Pittsfield, including Grove Street Inn.
ServiceNet only tracks people who stay in the shelter, which does not include individuals who enter the waiting list but find housing elsewhere from their data, but Sacchetti said that staff have noticed an increased amount of people on the waiting lists.
“About two years ago, we noticed that there’s a spike in people contacting the shelter looking for a bed, and typically we would have waiting lists in the winter that would be 20 to 25 people,” Sacchetti said. “Then in the summer, they would kind of go back to five, 10. Now it just seems like year-round we’re around 30 to 40 people (on the waiting list).”
These increased waiting times are also notable in light of a report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last month showing that Massachusetts experienced the highest hike in homelessness when counts were taken in Jan. 2018.
While the national homeless rate rose by .03 percent, homelessness in Massachusetts spiked 14 percent, according to the report.
This spike was partially attributable to evacuees taking refuge after Hurricane Maria, said Andrea Miller, homeless management information systems analyst for the Three County Continuum of Care.
In Hampshire, Hampden, Berkshire and Franklin counties, 1,120 Hurricane Maria evacuees were sheltered in the region by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But an additional 2,899 people experienced homelessness across the four counties in total, with 11 percent or 307 of these people counted in Hampshire County.
While it’s a complex situation, Sacchetti said that a standout problem is a lack of affordable housing.
“There was a time that you could get a room for $350, $400, and that person could manage their life,” Sacchetti said.
But in recent years, Sacchetti said this situation has become increasingly rare.
“All of the communities we work in, rents have skyrocketed,” he said. “There’s a lot less on the market these days, and landlords want to make sure that you can sustain yourself on the market.”
At the state level, Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, said that data has shown that for every 100 extremely low-income people, just 46 affordable housing units are available.
While low income is a “critical factor” in homelessness, Schwartz noted that various other factors such as addiction and mental health also drive homelessness rates.
If an individual can’t find housing in dangerous temperatures, Wren, who was homeless for about two years after graduating high school, said that he tells people to call 911.
“This is a public health crisis,” he added.
Miernecki also said that people can sit in police station lobbies at night.
But dangers other than the cold come with a lack of housing, Wren said.
“You’re on a waiting list, and you’re out of your shelter,” he said. “Where are you supposed to go when you’re waiting to get into housing?”
“They go back into the woods, they relapse, they go back to the unsafe living environment again and get retraumatized all over — and it’s just vicious,” he continued. “There’s nowhere people can occupy when they wait for their service.”
While Massachusetts statistically experienced a rise in homelessness as a whole last year and demand on individual shelters remains high, Schwartz said that there is also reason for optimism. According to the HUD report, Massachusetts was one of four states sheltering at least 95 percent of the homeless community.
In addition, Massachusetts is the only “Right to Shelter” state in the country, which protects families in crisis who meet certain criteria. Schwartz cited initiatives like the “Housing First” program, which prioritizes finding permanent housing over shelters, as efforts to end homelessness in the region.
“While we’re faced with this ongoing challenge,” Schwartz said, “simultaneously we’re making very real movement toward developing a system that will continue to reduce the number of chronically homeless individuals and families.”
Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.