Finding radical solutions

Issue February 2008 By David W. White Jr.

I am inspired by state Rep. Byron Rushing, who co-chairs the Special Commission Relative to Ending Homelessness in the Commonwealth. Not content to find programs which needed increased funding, or to seek a few Band-Aids to patch up old problems, the commission proposes a much more radical approach: Empty the homeless shelters, put people in permanent housing and attach the services that are needed. End homelessness, period.

The commission analyzes the causes of homelessness, and envisions a new system to stabilize tenancies to prevent homeless-ness and to re-house people before they enter shelters. The commission projects that the cost of the program is no greater than the current inadequate system of sheltering. The benefits of such a system would be significant.

The recommendations do not call for any new bureaucracies in the state, but rather for a re-alignment of the services. The present expenditures from the Department of Transitional Assistance, which total $120 million for temporary homeless sheltering, would be redirected for the development and maintenance of specialized supportive housing and flexible cash assistance to stabilize housing situations. Emergency shelters would be temporary, transitional, last-resort options instead of de facto housing for so many homeless families and individuals.

The plan also calls for the construction of more affordable housing, development of a broad array of housing alternatives for those who are already homeless and those who are at risk of homelessness, and breaking down barriers to access existing housing. The capital cost of needed construction is projected at $250 million.

While that cost may seem daunting, the savings on other programs and the benefits to society should easily balance the expense. It is obvious to anyone that the homeless family, bouncing in and out of shelters, has little economic opportunity, and the likelihood of a stable and productive education for the children is greatly diminished. It should also be obvious that the homeless family is more likely to be victimized, to be involved in crime and to suffer physical and mental health problems.

While stabilized housing is not going to end poverty, it should contribute to the reduction of poverty as families are able to gain access to more efficiently admini-stered supportive services, to economic opportunities, and to education. The families in need of housing assistance would be the focus as well of coordinated mental health, substance abuse and health care services, as well as education and training.

The commission also reminds us of the problems arising from the release of inmates from jails and prisons. Of the approximately 25,000 incarcerated men and women in Massachusetts, at some point, 97 percent will be released after gaining parole or completing their sentences. Each year, 4,000 ex-inmates move to homeless shelters or just live on the street. Without resources, education or job skills, these are the people who are among the most likely to re-offend in their first years after imprisonment, only to return to incarceration, an expense of $48,000 year in the state prison (and of course, there are the attendant expenses of victimization, prosecution and defense). Simply put, reducing homelessness is a way to reduce crime and save money.

Perhaps you are thinking, “What does this have to do with lawyers?” Homelessness and threatened homelessness result in eviction proceedings, loss of economic stability for landlords who may face foreclosures, custody and care and protection issues, juvenile court proceedings, criminal court proceedings, and so forth. Those costs can foreseeably be reduced.

There are plenty of other societal ills deserving radical reassessment. For example, it makes no sense to continue to fail to recognize the enormous problem of mental illness in our prison population. The stories are familiar: the mentally ill act out in prison, and instead of treatment they get isolation. Worsened illness and suicide too often result. They are also more likely to be released to the street without parole supervision because they have completed their sentences. Treating the illness and providing the other needed support helps breaks the cycle of crime.

Foster children, who “age out” of the Department of Social Services system as they turn 18, in many cases are left bereft of support and resources. They have no families, no money, often no job training or even a high school diploma. Programs to assist in the transition to adulthood are almost entirely lacking (the exciting exception is in Essex County, where a pilot project in the juvenile court has demonstrated great successes), putting these young adults at greater risk for homelessness, welfare dependency and incarceration.

Substance abuse is another area richly fertile for radical rethinking. Although drug courts offer some limited opportunities to divert drug-addicted defendants to treatment instead of to jail, thousands of individuals are still convicted and imprisoned for crimes related to addiction (including drug sales, prostitution, theft and so on). If the emphasis were on treatment instead of punishment, there would be more chance of breaking cycles of addiction and crime. Once again, I contend, we would see long-term savings and reductions in crime.

Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Following the same tired paths on housing, mental health and addiction certainly fit that definition of insanity. I am sure you can think of many other societal ills which deserve complete re-thinking. We need to thank leaders like Rep. Rushing, who dare to offer radical solutions, and to follow him by thinking outside the box.