PIP to close
Worcester’s efforts are model for the nation
HOMELESSNESS TURNS CORNER
By Lee Hammel TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF firstname.lastname@example.org
WORCESTER — The city has drawn admirers from Boston to Washington for its efforts to combat homelessness.
Worcester has practically eliminated chronic homelessness in the past three years and is poised to close its homeless shelter Jan. 31, officials say.
Officials say the decades-old People in Peril Shelter at 701 Main St., the target of neighborhood ire for decades, will close, but homeless people will be better served.
In November 2007, Community Healthlink and South Middlesex Opportunity Council, two nonprofit agencies that serve homeless people, counted 197 people who were chronically homeless, according to David E. McCloskey, director of PIP, which is now pointedly renamed the Greater Worcester Housing Connection. Under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition, those 197 people are people who have been homeless for at least a year or four times in three years.
“Today there are only two chronically homeless people who are not housed,” Deborah J. Ekstrom,Community Healthlink president and CEO, said last week. “We believe this is a first in the country.”
Worcester’s efforts have made federal officials sit up and take notice. “Worcester is really in the forefront in its efforts to deal with homelessness,” said Rhonda Siciliano, public affairs officer of the regional office of HUD.
“We’ll be looking to Worcester as a leader and for best practices and lessons learned.”
Some of the efforts to reduce local homelessness stem from the city manager’s Task Force on Homelessness, which issued its three-year plan to end homelessness in Worcester in November 2007. Its recommendations included closing the PIP shelter and developing 600 units of housing.
A major change came in November 2009, when people wanting to stay at the PIP shelter at Main and Charlton streets started being required to go to the triage center a few blocks away to be screened instead of automatically being admitted
Through close questioning to determine client needs and armed with a host of new resources, Community Healthlink staffers determined if people had other resources or whether Healthlink or SMOC had other available housing to divert them from the homeless shelter.
Diversion can be going back to housing with family or friends or sending people back to a community to which they have ties — even if it is to a homeless shelter there, Ms. Ekstrom said. “We make contact with some specific place or person to where they are going. Our goal is to end the person’s homelessness, not to make them homeless in another community,” she said. “We don’t just put them on a bus and say ‘Have a nice trip.’ ”
In the first 11 months after November 2009, staff managed to divert 1,290 of the 1,984 people who went through the triage assessment process, or 65 percent of those who showed up, according to Community Healthlink. That left 694 people admitted to the shelter.
Meanwhile, the policy under which Worcester police dropped off at the PIP shelter 40 to 45 people per month found to be drunk in public changed 14 months ago. Worcester police did not return calls to say what effect that has had.
Community Healthlink and SMOC also tried to find alternative housing for those who did not have other resources. The two agencies made 400 housing placements last year, according to the city manager’s office. Of the 300 homeless people SMOC has housed, “the vast majority have stayed at PIP,” Mr. McCloskey said, “while the others were at risk of being here, including those who lived outdoors in the weeds and in abandoned buildings.”
More possibilities are on the way, according to James T. Cuddy, SMOC executive director. In the next few months, the agency will add 11 supportive housing units in Hardwick, 23 units in Spencer and 16 in Gardner, and it is working to add 15 or 16 rooms at Friendly House’s former Francis Perkins House on Cottage Street.
The city’s housing director said she did not know how many new housing units have been developed since the task force issued its recommendation for 600.
One of the crucial elements in finding homes for people was the Home Again Initiative by the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts. That private foundation provided seed money and then funding for case management services for 95 people, 90 of whom are still Community Healthlink clients, according to Janice B. Yost, Health Foundation president and CEO.
The city’s efforts, overseen by the Leadership Council of the Worcester County Regional Network, revolve around the Housing First concept, in which people who have not necessarily achieved sobriety are given housing and plenty of social services to help them through their problems and become good neighbors. John G. O’Brien, president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health Care, said, “Housing First recognizes that housing for many of these individuals is a prerequisite for people to deal with the enormous challenges of substance abuse, homelessness, and mental illness and isolation.
“Housing First is not housing only. There are very intensive case management services linking them to health care services for a variety of medical issues and mental health and substance abuse treatment.”
Mr. O’Brien added, “Some of the traditional models inevitably lead to a requirement for shelters. And that’s not in the best interest of the individual certainly, not in the best interest of the community and it’s also economically not in anyone’s interest.”
The local support network for homeless people continues to evolve. Community Healthlink will open its triage and assessment center in Thayer Hall at 12 Queen St. a week from tomorrow, Ms. Ekstrom said. Currently, people who need help can go to 162 Chandler St. during the day and Thayer Hall at night. Far from being an emergency shelter where people can drop in at will and stay as long as they like, the revamped triage center will have 25 beds, and the staff will determine whether people can stay there.
Years ago, the PIP shelter housed more than 200 clients on the coldest nights of the year. Over four years, the December census has fallen from an average of 127 people per night to 60 last month. Frigid temperatures brought in 79 people on the most crowded night last month, Mr. McCloskey said.
Even though that is only half the peak number of years ago, the triage center at Thayer Hall at Queen Street and Jaques Avenue is designed for less than a third of last month’s peak number.
“Certainly we would not turn away folks who are eligible and qualify, for the purpose of lowering the census,” said Jacqueline Vachon-Jackson, the city’s director of housing.
But some of the 60 people still at the PIP shelter last week were fearful about what would happen if the city’s promise to close the PIP shelter Jan. 31 proves true, unlike numerous previous promises to do so.
“They’re going to keep 25 at the CHL and the rest of us will be thrown to the dogs,” predicted Bradford McMilleon, 61, a Westminster native who has been chronically homeless for two years. “I’m rather scared. I’m too … old to go back on the street again.”
Ms. Ekstrom said homeless people will not be left without help and noted that the changes have been planned for years.
The triage center at Thayer Hall, which is undergoing $150,000 in renovations thanks to its parent organization, UMass Memorial, is a temporary fix. The city is looking for $1.25 million from the state or elsewhere to add to the city’s own $250,000 it allocated for renovation of Community Healthlink’s Memorial Hall at 72 Jaques Ave. as a permanent triage-assessment center. Ms. Ekstrom said because of lack of privacy and size, she anticipates Memorial Hall will open by the middle of 2011, but Ms. Vachon-Jackson believes the opening might be 12 to 18 months away.
Either way, despite the fact that Worcester’s new facility is designed for only seven more people than Framingham’s, Ms. Ekstrom said, “We have some overflow capacity. We’re not going to turn people out in the cold.”
The $350,000 annual grant money that the Health Foundation provided for case management is scheduled to run out Sept. 30, Ms. Ekstrom said. Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray has instructed the state Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness to find a replacement for that money, according to interagency council executive director Liz Curtis Rogers. To that end, she and Ms. Yost had “a very positive meeting” recently with Mass Health, the state’s Medicaid agency, Ms. Curtis Rogers said.
Local agencies can make a strong case for their efforts. The Obama administration has set a goal of eliminating chronic individual homelessness by 2015 and family homelessness five years after that. The national rate of individual chronic homelessness declined 35 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, but Worcester has done better than that. “While some smaller communities have also nearly eliminated chronic homelessness, Worcester is the largest community to have done so,” said U.S. council spokesman Jason Kravitz.
“Worcester is in a class of its own,” he said.