Homelessness Task Force - Jul 11th, 2019

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This task force is concerned with three groups of people. The first group consists of residents that currently live in homes, but are on the brink of homelessness. They may be facing eviction, or living in substandard housing that has to be demolished. The second group consists of people living on couches, sleeping in cars, or living in subsidized hotels. They lack permanent housing. The third group consists of people who are living outdoors; for example, beneath the route 2 underpass, or in the woods on the Mugar property. The third group draws the most attention and generates the most complaints. They're also the group with the highest needs.

Kylee Sullivan from the Department of Health and Human Services works on the town's outreach team; she provides an overview of homelessness in Arlington. The route 2 underpass has been a popular place for homeless individuals to seek shelter. MassDOT installed bird spikes beneath the underpass in January 2019, but removed them shortly thereafter. The population under the bridge declined in the winter, then grew in June. MassDOT evicted them, and put up no trespassing signs.

A number of Arlington's homeless seek shelter on the Mugar property near route 2. There are typically 10--15 people encamped there on a regular basis. There are a number of abandoned campsites on the property, which are littered with debris and needles. The town has been in conversations with the owner of the property. We'd like to find resources to clean up the debris, but we have to work with the property owner because it's private property. DHHS's main concerns are with the health and safety of people living there, and of the surrounding community.

The Arlington Police department provided task force members with two reports pertaining to homeless individuals. One report covered the Thorndike area; the second covers all calls involving an individual who claimed to be homeless. Committee members were given the opportunity to examine the reports, which were collected at the end of the meeting (due to privacy concerns).

The police department has four areas of concern: individuals becoming victims of crime, overdoses, domestic abuse, and health risks. The homeless encampment on the Mugar property generates a lot of complaints from nearby residents.

The sanitary conditions in the encampment are poor, and 100% of residents in the woods refuse to go into shelters, for various reasons.

DHHS participates in a homelessness outreach program, which includes outreach teams from a number of municipalities and partner organizations. These include the city of Cambridge, Bay Care, Eliot, the Cambridge Health Alliance, the Cambridge Police Department, the Arlington Police Department, On the Rise, and the Cambridge Coordinated Access Network. They meet every Wednesday morning, perform outreach, and debrief. In Arlington, outreach occurs in the Mugar woods, libraries, coffee shops, and food pantries. Since the program began, we've conducted 41 outreach visits, and engaged with 30--40 homeless individuals.

In November 2018, Arlington was awarded a grant for a rapid transition program, which follows a housing first model. We've housed seven individuals so far, and the program can accommodate three more.

The Somerville Homeless Coalition has been an important partner in this effort. SHC formed in 1985. They have a sixteen bed shelter, which is full every night, all year round. Somerville has a family shelter with room for five families (also full every night of the year), and a food pantry called Somerville Soup. Most of the Somerville Homeless Coalition's work is now in housing. The organization has over ninety apartments, 27 of which are in Arlington. In addition to providing housing and case workers, SHC has a homelessness prevention program for people experiencing hardships.

SHC began working with Arlington in November 2018, through the MHSA grant. The Housing Corporation of Arlington has provided assistance with housing searches. The people SHC works with experience a variety of issues, such as mental illness and trauma. Finding housing units is a big challenge. They'll frequently rent storage units to house belongings until they can find permanent housing for an individual. They're currently trying to locate housing for three more individuals.

Sometimes SHC can work out a master lease agreement with landlords. In this arrangement, SHC holds the lease and sublets to the people they're helping. Other landlords want to work directly with homeless tenants. It's tough right now, because the market is so much in favor of landlords.

When MassDOT was evicting the homeless population under the bridge of route 2, DHHS began working on a set of expectations for the homeless population. These expectations include: providing for safe disposal of syringes; disposal of trash, and the use of porta-potties; asking the homeless to engage with outreach workers; the idea that everyone is entitled to a safe, secure, legal place to sleep; and, that failure to abide by these expectations may result in notices and possible eviction.

Next steps: a cleanup project in the woods (Oct 2019); education for the larger community (Nov 2019); and possibly a meet and greet with residents living in the woods (Sep 2019 or so).

A committee member asks about the MBTA's level of involvement in working with the homeless. They tend to be hands-off. State partners are generally more difficult to work with.

The state's Department of Housing and Community Development provides $5M in grants for housing aid, but that program covers the entire state. It's not a lot of money.

A committee member asks what gaps we have, aside from housing. We have the support of local leaders, and our outreach teams need to continue doing their work. Continuity is a challenge, particularly in the area of working with homeless individuals after we've found housing for them. We're learning from other communities.

Our next meeting will be in September. We'll continue to meet monthly, and may eventually switch to a quarterly meeting schedule.