Lifestyle, Local Government and Politics, News

A progress report on homelessness. Are we making any?

This article was published 1 year(s) and 7 month(s) ago.

A homeless encampment in Lynn. (Courtesy photo/Lynn Shelter Association)

At the start of 2022, North Shore organizations that assist homeless people ― like Lifebridge North Shore, the Lynn Shelter Association, and North Shore Community Action Programs (NSCAP) ― had some practice in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but they were also bracing for tough times ahead.

“Last year, at this time, we had isolated individuals and families test positive (for COVID), but we were able to contain it very well; this year in the last two, three weeks, we’ve had numerous staff and clients test positive and we had to isolate them,” said Mark Evans, executive director of the Lynn Shelter Association (LSA).

Lifebridge’s struggle with the omicron variant was very similar; Executive Director Jason Etheridge noted that the first two years of the pandemic only saw a couple of cases. In the first few weeks of January, they saw 19.

“That number doesn’t even make sense when we think about how the whole first two years went,” he said, but added that he saw a lot more employees get the virus than residents.

Another factor experienced by both LSA and Lifebridge was a social-distancing mandate that drastically cut down the amount of beds each organization was allowed to have in their shelter facilities.

“The individual shelter system in the state is not in the best place, and the infrastructure was  stressed further by COVID,” Evans said. “We have had to reduce capacity when there wasn’t much capacity in the first place.”
Etheridge said that “the commonwealth lost 40 to 50 percent of its shelter beds because of social distancing.

“You can’t have folks piled on top of each other, nor should you,” he added. “But there were times when you put 50-60 people in the space and now space looks more like 30 people.”

NSCAP offers some shelter services, but its primary housing mission is to provide temporary shelter in local apartments while assisting in finding permanent homes through case management.

“(COVID) affected us being able to have the same one-on-one relationship that we had with clients before because of the precautions we had to take,” said NSCAP Deputy Director Robert McHugh. “It changed the dynamic of making sure they have what they need. So instead of worrying about certain things, we were worrying about ‘do they have masks? Do you have hand sanitizers? Do they have paper towels, do they have this, do they have that?’ It changed the focus in a lot of ways.”

Among the three organizations, multiple different forms of housing assistance are offered, such as emergency shelters, permanent supportive housing, case management and legal advice, and special enrichment programs that materialize through the hard work of the staff. The pandemic has seen some programs go on pandemic hiatus, while increasing the urgency of others. At LSA, therapeutic musicians and YMCA-partnered workout time were postponed, while the “Welcome Home” program ― which stocks new homes with necessary supplies ― has seen a flurry of activity in the past two and a half years. 

Lifebridge lost a lot of its volunteers due to COVID, which led to the end of volunteer-led initiatives.

“Our community-meals program (was) serving 100,000 meals a year with over 400 volunteers coming in every single night of the week and serving dinner for 365 days of the year, and COVID comes along and that goes away,” Etheridge said. “So we have to sort of internalize that and hire staff and figure it out.”

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic entering its third year of devastation, another epidemic has been brewing in the United States for years. Evans, Etheridge, and McHugh didn’t mince words; each representative was quite clear ― housing in the country needs to be more affordable. 

“If you had $1 million, you’d have a hard time finding a house in today’s market,” said Etheridge. “We certainly need more affordable housing, we need permanent supportive housing, (and) it looks like we need more market-rate housing, too. There’s just not enough housing, period.”

The prognosis is grim across the country, with the New York Times reporting in January that “the median price for an American home is up nearly 20 percent (from 2021, and) the for-sale inventory is at a new low.” The Federal Housing Finance Agency reported in late November 2021 that house prices rose “in all of the top 100 largest metropolitan areas over the last four quarters,” and it doesn’t look better for renters. In November 2021, Politico cited research from The Apartment List’s annual National Rent Report that “the national median rent had increased by 16.4 percent from January to October — compared with an average 3.2-percent increase over the same pre-pandemic period from 2017 to 2019.”

McHugh, whose organization searches for temporary housing throughout the North Shore, was especially attuned to how this national struggle translates locally.

“(In) places you wouldn’t have thought of moving to a few years ago, people are paying more than a mortgage in rent, which is kind of amazing,” he said. “There have been units that are much more desirable lately for people coming into town. They’re willing to pay huge money for things that, in the past, you could have rented for a pretty reasonable amount of money. Same with houses.”

Meanwhile, Evans, whose organization serves Lynn, is intimately aware of the need in his city. 

“The city of Lynn has a profound problem with housing and people experiencing homelessness,” he said, adding that the city’s Housing Authority has made several positive steps, and City Hall has extended its support to the LSA as well; however, “the cost of real estate is outstripping the government ability to create affordable or low-income housing.”

In spite of the housing crisis and COVID-19 creating more need ― and without the ability to predict the future ― these organizations have invested in goals both large and small for the coming year.

NSCAP is looking to apply for American Recovery Plan funds, which they would invest in short-term rental subsidies for homeless individuals, while LSA is aiming to wrap up a two-and-a-half-yearlong capital campaign to relocate its adult shelter. The old facility, located in “the basement of the old post office on Willow Street,” was the site of frequent floods and ventilation problems, whereas the new space will be a “9,000-square-foot (facility) dedicated as an adult shelter with day programming, a housing-search office and a medical-exam office” at the site of the old Hotel Osmond on Liberty Street.

“We’re looking at something very multifaceted and decent and respectful,” Evans said. “Our biggest goal is to treat staff and clients with dignity in a space that’s both comfortable and healthy.”

Etheridge’s goals for Lifebridge are a bit more humble. He listed his first priority as getting his organization’s shelters back to their original capacities.

“We’re not seeing less homeless people just because there’s a pandemic,” he said. “2022 is not going to look like 2021 ― I think the more we learn and the better we get at it, the better we’ll do.

“It would be a shame to go through this whole thing and not learn anything.”

More Stories From Lynn