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?

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“A quiet alarm sounds.” Brooklyn gentrification subject of art exhibit (City Limits Magazine)

Gentrification may seem like a problem we wish we had, but  I am convinced that the time is now to plan for sustainable and equitable development. One risk is that, at the first sign of economic opportunity, big boxes and national chains will pour in, curtailing an historic opportunity to build real community. 125th Street? Times Square? Holyoke Mall?

This image (above) is part of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts’ exhibit, “The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks.” More images here. From their press release: “This exhibition, guest curated by Dexter Wimberly, will examine how urban planning, eminent domain, and real estate development are affecting Brooklyn’s communities and how residents throughout the borough are responding. The exhibition will include the works of several Brooklyn-based artists, as well as those who have been forced to relocate as a result of gentrification. In addition to works of art featured at MoCADA, there will be a schedule of public programs taking place throughout Brooklyn.”

From the City Limits Magazine review: “Anyone who’s lived in New York for a while has done it: Walked down a familiar block and remembered the old days – even three or four years ago – when that yoga studio was a bodega, that multinational bank was a local business, and you could rent a one-bedroom apartment for under $2,000.”

Environmental justice/land use photo-tour of Springfield at WNEC Law School [Updated x2]

Yesterday I talked about environmental justice and land use with Ben Rajotte’s students at Western New England College School of Law. Van Jones (Obama’s exiled green jobs czar) set the stage with this excellent video (below). And I followed up with a guided photo-tour of Springfield’s most dramatic built environment equity issues (environmental justice tourism!). Download the slideshow here (PDF, 11.5 MB).

UPDATE: My friend Bill Childs (see his WNEC “Blawg” here) alerted me that the commercial activity around the Basketball Hall of Fame is not all national chains. Onyx is owned by two local guys (WARNING: annoying music!), one of whom is a WNEC alum. And Max’s is a regional chain.

UPDATE: Relatedly, today’s NY Times piece, “Slumbering Pittsburgh neighborhood reawakens,” is about the revival of a Pittsburgh neighborhood (East Liberty). The article refers to a “community plan” that called for “attracting shoppers to a broader range of businesses than the aging mom-and-pop stores that remained, reviving the street grid, and creating jobs and better housing.” Big boxes are never neighborhood upgrades, but I couldn’t help but consider the possibilities of attracting national chains but requiring that they are scaled appropriately, located downtown, and pedestrian-friendly.

Students take on 4 local and timely policy topics [video]

Have the posts on this site seemed a little sparse lately? I haven’t been slacking off. In fact, I’ve been busier than ever working with twenty-one students from Amherst College, UMass, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, and Oberlin in the context of a January term course on applied public policy. The group split into four policy teams, and recruited a “client organization” for each:

  • The charter schools team linked up with the nascent Springfield Promise Neighborhood Committee
  • The biomass team linked up with Arise for Social Justice’s biomass taskforce
  • The food security team linked up with the Holyoke Health Center and the Holyoke Food and Fitness Policy Council
  • The homelessness team linked up with Interfaith Housing Corporation in Amherst

We have been working hard to include a very diverse range of stakeholders (not just the client org itself), with an emphasis on underrepresented groups. And we have been using a variety of media in order to tell a compelling story. You can see what we’ve done in photos, videos, and words on our splashy course web site (a wiki, really). Students will present their work at a special event at Amherst College on February 4th at 5PM (reception at 4:30). All are welcome. RSVP here. The students have done amazing work,. We are excited about raising the level of debate, and broadening participation in the debate of these regionally relevant and timely issues (does that sound like a familiar objective?). Click on my face to see a CH40 snippet about the course, and here’s an interview by Monte Belmonte with me and two students that aired on WRSI and WHMP.

“Can Buffalo ever come back?” More lessons for Springfield and Holyoke

Buffalo NYBecause UMass Amherst economist Nancy Folbre mentioned him in her NY Times blog post about The Springfield Institute and community-based economic development, I started looking into conservative Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and came upon his piece, “Can Buffalo ever come back?” (City Journal, Autumn 07).

Glaeser asks why other cities have been able to create post-industrial futures for themselves while Buffalo has not: “The other old, cold cities that staved off decline, like Boston and Minneapolis, similarly reinvented themselves, with the density that once served to move cargo onto ships now helping spread the latest ideas. The key ingredient: human capital. The cities that bounced back did so thanks to smart entrepreneurs, who figured out new ways for their cities to thrive.

But in places like Buffalo, “Scores of close to worthless urban projects have received government funding not because any cost-benefit analysis has justified them but because of hazy claims that they would make some once-great area thrive again.

Glaeser recommends “people-based policies that improve the economic futures of the children growing up there…. If the children of upstate cities were better educated, then they would earn more as adults—whether they stayed in their hometowns or moved to Las Vegas. And people-based policies may actually motivate states and cities to spend more wisely, in order to retain their newly educated and mobile residents.

But even then, Glaeser warns that fixing education and cultivating entrepreneurship “would not restore the boomtown of the early twentieth century; the economic trends working against such a prospect are simply too great. The best scenario would be for Buffalo to become a much smaller but more vibrant community—shrinking to greatness, in effect.

A few of my own reactions:

  • Glaeser alludes to a critical young adult demographic that Governor Patrick has recently named as a priority. And where retaining and attracting young people is a priority throughout the Commonwealth, it is particularly important in Springfield and Holyoke.
  • At this point, fixing education in Springfield and Holyoke is already a priority. But we’re not seeing results. How to transform this system is a formidable question in its own right.
  • Understanding Buffalo and the ideas of people like Edward Glaeser and Nancy Folbre is an important step toward breaking down the isolation that Springfield and Holyoke have suffered from, and inserting these cities into a national conversation about the future of metropolitan America.