Editorial: An end to homelessness is within reach

  • A man sits down to warm his hands over a heater immediately after checking in at the cold-weather homeless shelter in Concord on March 31. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Homelessness is a complex issue. Every person who lives on the streets has a unique story, although there are often shared chapters on unemployment, inherited poverty, mental illness and addiction. Because of that complexity, most discussions about eradicating the problem sound like pie in the sky. But that’s not the case in Concord, where the Coalition to End Homelessness has a realistic, concrete plan to do exactly what its name suggests.

Last week, the coalition announced details of a three-year, $1.63 million Safe Spaces campaign to pay for the construction of a permanent shelter behind the coalition’s resource center at 238 North Main St., as well as fund related support programs and the Housing First initiative. The one-time costs include $200,000 to purchase the property, $490,000 for site work and construction, and $48,000 for required reserves, for a total of $738,000. The remaining $892,000 will fund three years of operational costs. As part of the campaign, the coalition is seeking $528,000 in private donations, with $95,000 raised so far.

If you are in a position to give, or know somebody who is, we strongly urge you get behind the effort. The Monitor’s editorial board has met with many great groups supporting many great causes, but few have been as well organized, clear-eyed and dedicated as the coalition. When people such as Executive Director Ellen Groh, board Chair Ellen Fries and Director at Large Maggie Fogarty declare that an end to chronic homelessness in Concord is possible, it is not a wish but a statement of fact. To that end, it’s important to understand that the 40-bed permanent shelter the coalition plans to have in place by December is not the answer but rather a safety net that will allow the coalition to focus on the real solution: permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless.

In the past year and a half, the coalition has placed 15 chronically homeless people – collectively homeless for 98 years – in permanent housing through the Housing First initiative. That’s no easy task in a city like Concord, where the vacancy rate is extremely low, but it helps that landlords are given a financial guarantee in the form of federal rental assistance covering up to 100 percent of the rent (which must be no more than $850 per month). For tenants with income, 30 percent must go toward monthly rent.

The theory behind Housing First is that the best way to end chronic homelessness and subsequently reduce the financial burden on communities is to prioritize permanent housing and then offer support services as needed. This gives the formerly homeless person the stability they need to address mental health or addiction issues, for example, while also reducing shelter, hospitalization, criminal justice and other costs that are otherwise absorbed by communities. The coalition said that, nationally, the program has a success rate of 80 to 90 percent, and earlier this year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development revealed just how effective the program can be: Bergen County in New Jersey has become the first community in the country to end chronic homelessness.

As exciting as it is to think of eliminating homelessness, it is the individual stories that we find most inspiring. Groh told us of one man now in permanent housing in Concord who had a rough childhood followed by a heart attack in his 30s. For 22 years he lived without income and without a home – right up until the coalition helped him get on Social Security Disability and into an apartment.

“He cried with every single page of the lease that he signed,” Groh said.

The coalition is in the business of crafting happy conclusions to stories of struggle. They will need all the help they can get writing those final two words: “The End.”