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Crowded shelters struggle to find and retain staff, providers tell lawmakers during State House rally

By Alison Kuznitz | State House News Service

May 16, 2024

Shelter providers serving homeless individuals urged lawmakers Wednesday to provide funding for a workforce development program as they face an escalating demand for services, including among new arrivals to Massachusetts, that is straining the capacity of their facilities.

Ahead of next week’s Senate budget debate, advocates with the Coalition for Homeless Individuals are looking to build support for language sponsored by Sen. Lydia Edwards, D-3rd Suffolk, injecting $10 million into the shelter workforce development initiative to “provide pathways to careers in fields related to housing and homelessness.” The money is intended to address barriers to entering or staying in the field, such as transportation, loan repayment, tuition or certification fee reimbursement, and childcare.

The $57.9 billion Senate Ways and Means budget proposal did not allocate money for the program, though the House’s fiscal 2025 budget steers $10 million to the line item, said Lyndia Downie, executive director of Pine Street Inn, which operates four shelters in Boston. Downie said demand at the shelters serving individuals who are homeless increased by 35 percent over the last year.

“We’re here to really make the case that there’s been an increase. We’re looking for some support and trying to anticipate that next winter is going to be really difficult,” Downie told the News Service as she stressed the need for planning backed by state aid. “And then there’s some workforce dollars that the House put in the budget that we’re hoping to get in the Senate, as well.”

Both the House and the Senate Ways and Means budget direct more than $110 million for a separate homelessness program, including assistance for organizations that offer shelter, transitional housing, and services that help people avoid entering shelters or successfully exit shelters. The coalition is requesting $126 million, a roughly 15 percent increase over the current fiscal year to reflect heightened demand.

More than 6,500 individuals — meaning adults without children — are currently homeless in the commonwealth, according to the coalition, which represents 60 community-based providers. But the vast majority of those individuals are sheltered.

Providers say they have encountered a growing population of migrants who need to be housed and tend to stay longer than their Bay State counterparts. The state’s right-to-shelter law, which has come under scrutiny as a crush of migrant families inundate the family shelter system, does not apply to individuals experiencing homelessness.

“Our state does not have the right-to-shelter protections for individuals as it does for families,” Rep. John Moran, D-9th Suffolk, said at the advocacy event in Nurses Hall. “And were it not for people in this room stepping up each and every day, we’d be in a crisis.”

Individual shelter demand has increased on average by 24 percent over the past year, which the coalition attributes to a lack of affordable housing, youth mental health, addiction, a growing elderly population, more frequent extreme weather, and the migrant surge. The spike has translated into towns recording larger volumes of homeless individuals in their communities.

“What we’re seeing here is just a tremendous increase of people needing our services in our emergency shelters. We’ve been in overflow all year,” John Yazwinski, CEO of Father Bill’s and MainSpring, a shelter provider serving the South Shore, said. “Over the last year, we’ve seen about a 30 percent increase at the shelter. We’ve seen over a 40 percent increase of people that are unsheltered in the South Shore.”

Yazwinski said his organization has “huge” worker vacancies, including frontline staff who check people into shelters, as well as those in security, maintenance and food service roles.

“The workforce money is the money that gives our agencies the ability to give cost-of-living increases and bonuses to our frontline staff,” he said. “Our frontline staff during COVID never stayed home — they kept coming. So, we want to make sure that they are valued in our state.”

Edwards filed her amendment, which mirrors language approved by the House, as an additional tool to tackle the state’s housing crisis, an aide for the senator indicated. Gov. Healey’s budget proposal didn’t direct money to the program either, with budget documents saying the administration “eliminated FY24 one-time costs.”

“If we look at the staffing for homeless shelters, if they’re not able to fund that staffing and they can’t retain that personnel, then that’s less people they can bring into the shelter. That means there’s more homeless people,” Christianna Golden, Edwards’ legislative and policy director, said. “We in Massachusetts have been successful in addressing individual homelessness but we can’t continue to be successful without a workforce.”

Asked about the lack of funding in the committee’s budget for the workforce development program, A spokesman for Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues, D-1st Bristol/Plymouth, said the committee bill allocates $1.14 billion in total funding for housing-related programs, an increase of $66 million over fiscal 2024.

“We are proud to commit over 1 billion in funding to support access to housing for our most vulnerable and marginalized residents, scaffolding them with the support services they need to transition into permanent affordable housing,” Rodrigues’ spokesman, Sean Fitzgerald, said in a statement. “This builds on the work from earlier this session when the Senate led on initiatives to increase funding for the low-income housing tax credit and for market-rate housing in gateway cities.”

Fitzgerald called the housing crisis a “strong Senate priority” for the rest of the session.

“We look forward to tackling this issue with the $4.1 billion Housing Bond Bill, while also improving on the Committee’s recommendations through the amendment process as members work collaboratively to shape the final Senate budget,” Fitzgerald continued.

The migrant crisis has unleashed a new challenge for individual shelter providers. Downie said individual migrants lack a path out of shelter due to the backlog in obtaining work authorization permits.

“When people don’t have a path out, you don’t have a bed for the next person who becomes homeless, and then that person is then sleeping on the floor,” Downie said. “Of course, our worry is that we’ll collectively run out of space, and we’ll say to people, ‘We don’t have a bed — you know it’s December, and there’s no more room.’”

Yazwinski said his organization has helped more than 60 individual migrants, including those who came to Massachusetts with relatives but did not qualify for the family shelter system. A mother with two children may be separated from her father, uncle or brother, who are then directed to the individual shelter system, he offered as an example.

People from Massachusetts typically stay in shelter for four to five months, though Yazwinski said an undocumented individual or migrant could end up needing to remain for more than a year or two. Individuals are never turned away from shelter, Yazwinski said.

“What we’re doing is we’re taking our cafeteria, our conference rooms and we’re converting them into warming centers, so usually we have people sleeping on mats,” he said. “We got to a place where we couldn’t have enough — we had too many people sleeping on the mats — so then we turned to having people just be in a warming center, where people are just sitting in chairs, just so they’re not outside.”

Learn more about the Coalition for Homeless Individuals.