With the recent tragedy of a homeless couple in Greenfield freezing to death and the growing struggle with shelters’ limited capacities, which were highlighted in the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Jan. 19 article headlined “‘No backup option’: Shelters at their limits during winter,” the problem of homelessness in this community looms larger than ever. Behind the blatant bleakness of the current situation, however, both pieces of news point to a simple and straightforward truth: on their own, emergency shelters can no longer act as the sole buffer against homelessness. Rather, they must be used as supplementary solutions that work in tandem with a more fundamental approach toward solving homelessness: affordable housing.
The key difference between emergency shelters and affordable housing lies in their stages of intervention. In the chain of events that lead up to an individual’s homelessness, emergency shelters come in as a final measure to provide immediate, short-term relief. Affordable housing, on the other hand, tackles homelessness at its very roots by working to prevent an individual from becoming homeless to begin with, or returning a homeless individual back to his or her initial stability. If shelters aim to manage homelessness, affordable housing aims to solve it — ultimately, the only solution to homelessness is to provide the homeless with homes, and affordable housing is the most direct means to achieve that end goal.
Affordable housing also comes with cost benefits. According to the Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance, average Medicaid, shelter and incarceration costs are known to drop by approximately $13,000 per tenant each year once the individual is introduced to stable housing and support services. This evidence suggests that affordable housing measures are more cost-effective than emergency shelters due to their long-term stabilizing effects. Homeless people, including those at shelters, are more susceptible to mental and physical debilitation, which leads to more frequent medical mishaps and incarceration. Affordable housing cuts down on these additional expenses by providing homeless people with more mental and physical stability. This conduciveness to rehabilitation is one of the greatest advantages of affordable housing. In contrast, shelters, which act as temporary spaces intended to provide a night’s sleep rather than a long-term support system, are limited via their very construct.
In light of affordable housing’s efficacy, public policies and programs have worked to make affordable housing accessible. The Gazette article’s mention of the Housing First program hints at ongoing local efforts to promote permanent housing. The Housing First program organized by Amherst Community Connections, a local nonprofit organization that supports homeless people, is one example of the many efforts that tackle homelessness at a grassroots level. The program works by providing chronically homeless Amherst residents with housing vouchers that include wrap-around support services.
On the other hand, efforts to solve homelessness on the state level tend to be more diluted across numerous initiatives, including shelters and affordable housing. According to a 2016 MassLive article about homeless shelters in western Massachusetts, average costs for the Friends of the Homeless shelter are around $42 per bed per night, out of which approximately $26 is financed through state funding and the rest through fundraisers and grants. This indicates that the state’s funding for shelters is far lower than the actual needed amount. More importantly, it is notable how the shelter’s cost of supporting an individual amounts to a total of around $1,260/month. The fact that this exceeds the typical monthly rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Amherst illustrates the problem with emergency shelters as a long-term intervention: it would be more cost-effective and beneficial if the state were to invest in affordable housing and other interventions that address the affordable housing gap, rather than in emergency shelters.
With the abundance of organizations, policies and systems in place for tackling homelessness, it is imperative to see how these individual components may work most effectively in relation to one another, and to allocate our resources accordingly. While shelters are an indispensable part of the support system for homeless people, they should be perceived and utilized as intermediary sites with the aim of connecting homeless people to affordable housing. It is even more important to boost the accessibility of affordable housing in two directions: making affordable housing more affordable and increasing low-income residents’ abilities to afford these houses. The recent increase of Massachusetts’ minimum wage to $12 per hour is promising in the latter respect. Increasing accessibility can also be achieved through bolstering local grassroot initiatives such as those used at Amherst Community Connections, increasing federal and state funding of housing or something different all together. The first step towards seeing the change we want to see, however, may be something as simple as reminding ourselves that our final goal is to take homeless people off the streets and into stable housing, not to make their lives on the streets more bearable.