Homelessness Task Force - Sep 26th, 2019

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Approval of Meeting Minutes. The group approved minutes from the July 11th task force meeting.

Presentation: former resident from Mugar Woods. Hannah, a member of the Somerville Homeless Coalition, had hoped to bring a guest speaker tonight: an individual that was formerly living in the Mugar woods but has since moved into permanent housing. He wasn't able to attend because he spends his evenings volunteering at a soup kitchen.

This individual became homeless in 2001, when he was living in Connecticut. He eventually moved to Arlington, and was living in the Mugar woods. We tried to engage with this individual; over time we built a connection and were able to meet him where he's at. HHS outreach team members spoke with him every week, and eventually he started to trust them. He decided to come inside, but we didn't have a unit available right away. We found an apartment for him a week later. He's moved all of his belongings indoors and has started decorating. He wants to start working, and help people who are living in the woods.

Update from homeless outreach team. The team had an outreach effort yesterday. There was an influx of homeless youth during the summer, but they weren't around yesterday. They engaged a number of people, and hoped to help a few of them apply for housing. There are currently 10--20 people living outdoors in the Mugar woods.

A homeless individual came to the police station yesterday. He has outstanding warrants, and wanted to get them cleared so he'd be able to access social services. APD booked him, set up an appointment with a judge, and his warrants are now cleared.

The Somerville Homeless Coalition has three units available for housing homeless individuals. They're in the process of helping an individual apply for one of these units.

Boston's Operation Clean Sweep displaced a large number of homeless individuals who were living near the Boston Medical Center. A number of them drifted into Cambridge, Somerville, and Arlington. The Mugar woods continue to be a popular area, which has led to complaints from residents. We've tried to work with these individuals, so that they can get along with the community. For example, by providing porta potties and trash bins. The majority of people living in the Mugar woods will likely move into seasonal shelters as the weather turns colder. It's difficult to find landlords that will take homeless individuals as tenants. Our budget for rent is $1,800/month, including utilities, and it's challenging to find things at that price point.

Police Department Updates. The camps can be dangerous places. Guns, knives, disturbances, domestic disputes, and fires. The terrain is unfamiliar to officers. There are lots of needles and debris in the woods. APD has gotten an increase in calls from residents who live near Thorndike field, and are concerned about their kids going into the woods.

APD received two reports about firearms. One turned out to be a BB gun, which the individual was using for protection. APD wasn't able to locate the other reported weapon.

A task force member suggests sending an FYI email, either through the school system or soccer league. Not to scare parents, but to make them aware that a number of people are living in the woods.

There's a discussion about how to map the encampments in the Mugar woods. The police are starting to map the area as a safety measure for officers. It's challenging because the area is very fluid, and people move around. Erin Zwirko suggests that APD contact Adam Kurowski, who maintains the town's GIS system. Mr. Kurowski is very familiar with the tools that are available, and may be able to provide assistance. Mel Goldsipe suggests working with urban studies groups at MIT.

Health and Human Service Updates. HHS applied for a grant to help people living in the woods, by providing transportation services. Lack of transportation is a barrier for people who need to access services. They're trying to organize a provider fair, to meet the homeless, build relationships, and provide access to services. They've discussed a cleanup project for the woods. There are decades of old debris. The residents are interested in cleaning up; they want to do the job themselves, but need assistance. HHS is trying to get them a dumpster and equipment to haul the trash out. The population probably wouldn't be comfortable with an outside group coming in to clean up their camp, but there are large areas of debris that aren't located near any active campsite. These areas could potentially be a volunteer project.

HHS is considering a community forum, to educate people about Arlington's homeless situation and who the three populations are: people with housing that are in danger of losing it, people who don't have permanent housing but are living indoors (staying with friends or couch surfing), and people who are living outside.

Marcy, a social worker with the Council on Aging, has seen a steady uptick in housing instability for the elderly, due to the current real estate market. A number of seniors have been evicted because the house they were living in has been sold, or because they're no longer able to afford the rent. They're able to help some of these people, but the wait-list for senior housing is very long. Most of the units they're able to find are through the Arlington Housing Authority.

There's a discussion about how it might be possible to provide more housing. The housing authority hasn't built any new housing in years. They might be able to build more, but the challenge is funding. Mel Goldsipe would like to see this spring's zoning articles come back, in a more well-rounded package that explicitly addresses senior and low-income housing. Steve Revilak notes the regional housing shortage exacerbates this problem. We have to build more housing, but that isn't a complete solution in itself. Marcy says that another housing authority building would help the situation.

Erin Zwirko reports that the Housing Plan Implementation Committee has talked about sponsoring a warrant article to establish an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. A similar warrant article was offered in 2008, but town meeting voted it down.

There's more discussion about how to change town bylaws to both allow more housing, and make it less expensive to build. For example, by making it easy for homeowners to add accessory dwelling units.

Public Comment. Three members of the public attended tonight's meeting, and offer comments.

Joe works with Highrock church, and came to see what the group was doing. He's very happy to see the town taking these steps. His church might be able to provide volunteers for a cleanup.

Another guest worked with homeless individuals while she was living in the UK. She's done a lot of street outreach. She recognizes it's a challenging task, and offers a hats-off to our outreach workers. She also worked to create a "safe space" while in the UK. This was a space that was open to homeless individuals 24/7, where they could come and access services.

A third guest is named Kathleen. She used to live in Hawaii, where she had success in organizing churches to help with homelessness. She'd love to see the town do this. She was confused about the funding for these efforts, and wondered what the $1.9M grant to Somerville is being used for. Kathleen is homeless, and feels like she's been getting a runaround when trying to access services. Kathleen says there's no grant funding for transportation.

Christine Bongiorno reports that HHS is opening a position for a case worker to provide assistance to homeless individuals. They'll start interviewing for this position in a couple of weeks.