Homelessness in the State: Permanent Solutions versus Quick Fixes

The Massachusetts policy for housing the homeless in hotels is now in the spotlight for its inefficiency after several incidents of crime, the most troubling of which involved the endangerment and death of a child.  To end the problem of homelessness—to truly end it, not just placate it for the time being— we have to not only get those in need off the streets but into sustainable living situations, and with the resources they need to rebuild their lives.

The state spends about $2 million a month to house the 800 to 900 families that partake in the program. The way the money is being spent now, the solution is temporary at best and detrimental at worst; it’s harder to secure a job or even an interview for one without a permanent address, and it is also emotionally taxing on the families to not have a place to call their own. Here in Springfield, the number of homeless people is nearly double what it was two years ago, and the city’s Housing Department is placing people in hotels because the shelters are full. There is a general consensus that this policy is wholly ineffective, but the question is, what’s the best solution, considering budget constraints and the immediate need for a system that works?

In “Ending Family Homelessness in Massachusetts” — a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, professor Dennis P. Pulhane proposes modifications to the Emergency Assistance program that make the system more useful and economical, such as: taking precautionary steps so that more families don’t become homeless to begin with; varying the assistance given based on the need of the family; and reduced shelter stays. The final version of the 2011 state budget, which came out at the end of last month, allots at least 3.5 million towards reducing the use of hotels and motels and moving those families into more permanent housing.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote on a similar topic for the New Yorker in 2006: “Million-Dollar Murray”—an article that investigates the efficiency of large scale solutions for homelessness versus ones that target specifically the few who cause the most problems. In the article, he speaks with Philip Mangano, who was the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Mangano’s philosophy on the issue should be widely observed:

“It is very much ingrained in me that you do not manage a social wrong. You should be ending it.”


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