Joyce Tavon

There’s a proven solution to end chronic homelessness. It’s cost effective, good for business and it’s the humane thing to do. It’s called supportive housing.

The current housing shortage in Massachusetts not only hurts our economy; it’s fueling our rising homelessness crisis. Tent encampments are growing in cities, suburbs, and rural towns, from Pittsfield to Cape Cod. Many people are forced to sleep in their cars. Emergency shelters are dangerously overcrowded. And nationwide, the fastest growing population experiencing homelessness is 50 and over.

Local news has covered the migrant crisis bringing desperate people to our state where families have a right to shelter. Meanwhile, there’s a looming crisis across the commonwealth fueled by our housing shortage: homelessness among adults for whom there is no right to shelter. This alarming situation impacts some of our most at-risk neighbors, many struggling with significant health issues and disabilities.

While Gov. Maura Healey has made housing a top policy priority, data suggest we’re short 200,000 homes across all income levels. As we strive to add significantly more housing stock, we must target 5 percent of that new housing to our most vulnerable unhoused residents. To address this emergency, we must create 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing in Massachusetts by 2030.

Why Supportive Housing?

In early April, the Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance, in partnership with the Corporation for Supportive Housing and United Way of Massachusetts Bay, hosted a conference with more than 150 representatives of government, nonprofits and the private sector in attendance. This group is aligned and committed to developing supportive housing to decrease long-term homelessness.

It’s worth noting that only a subset of all unhoused people needs this model – a permanent place to live combined with services to assist them in achieving greater stability. With a roof over one’s head, it’s easier to tackle an addiction, receive mental health treatment or finally address complex health issues.

But for those who need it, four reasons show why supportive housing is the right strategy.

Supportive housing is the humane response: Living outside or in a crowded shelter intensifies health problems and presents barriers to care.

Supportive housing is good for business: Our communities are not at their best when people are forced to live in tents in public parks or congregate in commercial districts.  Breaking up tent encampments doesn’t address the issue; instead it just shifts the problem – and the people who are suffering – from place to place.

Supportive housing saves money: A 2020 independent analysis of MassHealth records determined that health care costs dropped by more than $5,200 per person per year for people moved to supportive housing compared to a similar homeless cohort. Once housed, these individuals stop cycling in and out of expensive emergency rooms and inpatient hospital beds.

Supportive housing works: On average, 85 percent of people remain housed two years after placement.

We Need All Hands on Deck

Massachusetts has long been a leader in solving chronic homelessness. Between 2007 and 2022, chronic homelessness dropped by 44 percent, with 1,232 fewer people affected as our total supportive housing inventory increased to nearly 9,000 units. During that period, fewer people were living on the streets and shelters weren’t as crowded as they are now. But we’re losing ground as housing construction costs rise and public financing for new developments fails to keep pace with need. Last year chronic homelessness increased by 30 percent, and only 400 units of supportive housing were added.

To move us forward, we need “all hands on deck.” Partners from many sectors must work together to develop a variety of innovative and cost-effective ways to create considerably more supportive housing.

Our challenge is clear. We must invest sufficient public funds in proven models and simplify and accelerate funding through a flexible funding pool supported by both public and private resources. Let’s connect landlords and developers with nonprofit organizations who can master lease entire buildings with a public commitment to cover the rent and services. And let’s pursue manufactured and modular micro-units, an economical way to add quality housing faster and more efficiently.

As a society, we have an obligation to dramatically reduce chronic homelessness and provide the services needed to ensure success. By joining forces in a public-private partnership and allocating adequate funding we can meet the goal of 10,000 units by 2030.

Joyce Tavon is CEO of the Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance.

Looming Homelessness Crisis Demands Supportive Housing Ramp-Up

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min