With the recent tragedy of a homeless couple in Greenfield freezing to death and the growing struggle with shelters’ limited capacities that was highlighted by the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s January 19th article headlined “‘No backup option’: Shelters at their limits during winter,” the problem of homelessness in this community looms larger than ever. As an intern at Amherst Community Connections and as a member of this community that has failed to support and protect some of its most vulnerable members, I feel obligated to share my views on the current crisis, in the hopes of drawing attention to some of its most important yet overlooked aspects. In my opinion, both news on the deaths and shelters’ failures point to a single, straight-forward truth: Emergency shelters on their own can no longer maintain their efficacy as buffers to homelessness. Rather, they must be used in tandem with a more fundamental approach towards solving homelessness, that is affordable housing.
The key difference between emergency shelter and affordable housing lies in their respective stages of intervention. In the chain of events leading up to an individual becoming homeless, emergency shelters come in at the very end, as a final measure to provide immediate, short-term relief. Affordable housing, on the other hand, tackles homelessness from its very roots, by preventing an individual from becoming homeless to begin with, or returning an individual who has become homeless 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 lead to more frequent medical mishaps and incarcerations. Affordable housing cuts down on these additional expenses through providing the mental and physical stability that homeless people need to rehabilitate themselves. In this way, one of the greatest advantages of affordable housing lies in its conduciveness to rehabilitation. In contrast, shelters are limited via their very construct as temporary spaces intended to provide a night’s sleep, rather than a long-term support system.
In light of such efficacy of affordable housing, public policies and programs become ever more significant in making 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 is one example of such efforts that tackle homelessness at grass-roots level. The program works by providing chronically homeless Amherst residents with housing vouchers that include wrap-around supportive 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. In a 2016 MASSlive article about homeless shelters in Western Massachusetts, Friends of the Homeless shelter stated its average cost to be 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 falls far behind 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 shelter as a long-term intervention: it would be more cost-effective and beneficial to those concerned with homelessness to invest in affordable housing and other interventions that address the affordable housing gap, rather than emergency shelters.
With the abundance of organizations, policies, and systems that are already 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 active aim of connecting their beneficiaries to affordable housing. Only through tackling homelessness from its roots, that is the scarcity and inaccessibility of affordable housing, can we resolve the current strain placed on emergency shelters, as well as achieve long-term advances towards eradicating homelessness. Whether that be through bolstering local, grassroots efforts like those executed at Amherst Community Connections, through increasing federal and state funding for housing, or something different all together, is left to the consideration of all concerned individuals and communities, as well as the state and nation as a whole.
Esther Yoojin Song
Amherst Community Connections
Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance, https://www.mhsa.net/homelessness-massachusetts
Schoenberg, Shira, Mar 14, 2016, “State funding leaves WMass Homeless shelters needing more,” https://www.masslive.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/03/state_funding_leaves_wmass_hom.html