Homelessness remains a top issue in western Mass.

  • Figures show the number of people experiencing homelessness in the four counties of western Massachusetts from 2018 to 2022. Courtesy Graphic/Western Mass. Network to End Homelessness

  • Figures from the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness show the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness or living unsheltered in the four counties of western Massachusetts from 2018 to 2022. Courtesy Graphic/Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness

Staff Writer
Published: 5/10/2022 8:37:44 AM
Modified: 5/10/2022 8:37:44 AM

At most recent count, some 2,836 people were experiencing homelessness in the four counties of western Massachusetts, including 1,876 parents and children.

That’s according to figures from the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, which recently held its sixth annual gathering of policy makers, advocates and other leaders across the region. The data show overall homelessness stayed close to a similar level as the previous year, though other data points concerned those working on the issue.

The group noted that while the number of families with children experiencing homelessness has steadily decreased over the past five years — from a five-year high of 3,156 in 2018 — the number of individuals in homelessness was higher this year at 960 than it has been in the past five years. So, too, is the number of those in chronic homelessness or unsheltered.

“People of color are disproportionately represented in the homeless population,” said Gerry McCafferty, director of Springfield’s Office of Housing and the Hampden County Continuum of Care. McCafferty noted that risk factors for homelessness include mental health struggles, substance use, family stress, domestic violence, job loss and the rising costs of housing. “The pandemic continues to take a severe toll.”

The event featured more than 250 guests attending the presentation virtually, including many of the area’s elected representatives to the state Legislature, a handful of local mayors and other elected officials.

Among the invited speakers was Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia, who described his administration’s efforts with others to set up “pop-up warming shelters” this winter and other initiatives to help those on the streets.

“This issue of homelessness and addiction is the top issue right now,” Garcia said, acknowledging that despite all the work toward addressing those issues, it can sometimes feel hard to make progress. “That means coming up with better ideas and strengthening our network collaboration.”

Members of the network had some of those ideas, spelling out a list of legislative priorities to address.

“Thankfully, we have a supportive legislative delegation who can help push us closer to the goalpost,” said Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. “More flexible rental assistance, more supported shelter for our most challenged individuals, passing bills that provide eviction protection and housing justice and preserve and create more affordable housing stock. There is no mystery here. We just need to get it done.”

In particular, the network highlighted several bills that are currently in committee on Beacon Hill, with a May 9 deadline to be reported favorably out of those committees.

That legislation includes: a COVID-19 housing equity bill to prevent pandemic-related evictions and foreclosures; a bill that would grant residents the right to legal counsel in evictions; a bill that would authorize municipalities to charge a fee for above-median real estate sales, or more for speculative real estate transfers, to pay for affordable housing in that community; and an act to allow municipalities the option of providing tenants in multi-family buildings the right to match any offer to buy their homes or designate those rights to a nonprofit or housing authority.

Exploding housing costs and eviction attempts were the focus of several speakers.

Rose Webster-Smith, program director at Springfield No One Leaves, noted that between January and April of this year, there have been 1,380 eviction cases filed in the region. In addition, there have been 204 petitions for foreclosure during that same timeframe and 157 scheduled foreclosure auctions.

“We are seeing a huge increase of no-fault eviction cases seeking back rent,” said Webster-Smith, adding that those filings are a way for landlords to circumvent protections for those with pending rental assistance applications.

During the speeches of several state lawmakers, some attendees posted calls for rent control in the state and a greater commitment to building affordable housing.

The end of the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program on April 15, and the state Legislature’s failure to step in and continue the program on the state level, was singled out as a “significant loss of housing stability” in the state.

“Prevention works,” McCafferty said of eviction protections.

Other speakers at the event included Jeff Olivet, the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Way Finders President and CEO Keith Fairey and Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development Undersecretary Jennifer Maddox.

Marisa Perez, assistant director at the Center for Human Development and a program director at ServiceNet, spoke about her own experience with homelessness in the early ’90s when she was fleeing domestic violence as the mother of five children.

“It only takes one trauma, one event, to lead us into homelessness,” Perez said. “I will never forget those 40 days. … I will always remember thinking, ‘What’s next? What now?’”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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