Most cities and towns that are in proximity to communities with homeless people have eradicated homelessness. This does not mean they have discovered the keys to resolving a chronic societal ill. Rather, they have intentionally created conditions that make it impossible for an unsheltered individual to stay within their borders except for only brief and mostly daylight stints. These cities and towns have learned the art of exporting their homelessness problem.
There are three basic categories of homeless people: Sheltered, meaning having a temporary reservation to a cot in an emergency shelter for overnight stays only; unsheltered, meaning living in outdoor settings mostly; and transitionally sheltered, referring to a wide range of temporary housing arrangements. The principal driver of homelessness in the region mirrors that of most of the country: lack of affordable housing. When you add to this condition subsets of homelessness drivers such as addiction, drug abuse, mental illness and various forms of domestic isolation, homelessness becomes a sprawling and visible problem.
As an example, Lawrence is a center for exceptional social services. There is a constellation of facilities, ranging from emergency shelters to sober houses, half-way houses, clinics and a hospital. There is a plethora of government and private agencies too, including Department of Children and Families; and the Department of Transitional Assistance, for example. There are also publicly subsidized housing projects and transitional housing units owned and managed by nonprofits. Add to this a strong network of nonprofit agencies and faith-based organizations that provide basic necessities such as food and clothing, and you create an environment that can help someone who is homeless gain the most basic underpinnings to initiate a pathway to housing stability. In Lawrence, an unsheltered homeless person can get three meals a day, a shower once or twice a week and an opportunity to be checked by a counselor, doctor or other medical professional.
Throughout Cape Ann and the North Shore there are communities that control the public safety, economic consequences and “image” issues associated with homelessness effectively by enacting ordinances, zoning and police policies that make it impossible to be homeless within their borders. The most notable examples are no encampments permitted, no loitering in public places, no sleeping in public places, and aggressively discouraging or restricting panhandling. Additional measures are enacting dusk to dawn restrictions in public parks, closing or restricting hours for public bathrooms and eliminating public fountains. Some cities and towns have also enabled restaurants and gas stations to restrict the use of bathrooms to patrons only. Many municipalities have not complied with minimum state-mandated affordable housing unit counts. Still others do not allow occupying public spaces such as a library without being an active user of the facilities.
So if I was an unsheltered homeless person, whose possessions were defined by what I could carry, I would eventually leave your city or town if I couldn’t get anything to eat, could not lay my head down anywhere and if I soiled my pants once or twice, could not clean up. Eventually I would migrate to a city or town that would allow me to survive.
I know a homeless person who was told by a Beverly police officer to “go to Lynn.” In fact, he was even offered a one-way ride there. I met a couple from Saugus who lived under the Casey Bridge in Lawrence last summer. I asked them “why are you here?” They told me “we are users but are trying to get back on our feet. The cops in Saugus wouldn’t let us stay camped out in the woods.” These are unacceptable conditions.
Local state legislators should increase efforts to lead their communities in participating in regional approaches to address the issue of housing instability and homelessness. In 2015 Gov. Baker and Lt. Gov. Polito convened the ICHH: Interagency Council of Housing & Homelessness. Working through various committees and subcommittees numerous, viable action plans are in motions to help solve homelessness in all sub-populations such as veterans, elderly, youth and those suffering from addiction. Without these actions there would be a tendency otherwise, for communities to actively implement NIMBY versions of public policy.
There aren’t enough beds, shelters, programs and affordable housing units in our state. But when you have a concentration of these in a few cities throughout the commonwealth, plus a tolerant public policy structure such as you have in Lawrence, those cities bear the brunt of a massive social ill. In the meantime, the vast majority of communities will quietly maintain public policies that will keep the problem conveniently out of their proverbial backyards.
Joe D’Amore, who lives in Groveland, is an advocate and Founder of Merrimack Valley Hope Mission.