The Community Foundation convened stakeholders to bring non=congregate shelter to people experiencing homelessness in North Central Massachusetts.
The Community Foundation’s role in supporting homeless services during the pandemic brought the issue of homelessness in North Central Massachusetts into sharp relief for us. With between 70 and 100 people “sleeping rough”, in tents, in their cars, under railroad bridges, we learned that there was no low-threshold shelter for unhoused individuals anywhere in North Central Massachusetts. So, in May of 2021, one year into the pandemic, the Housing First Working Group was formed.
“Housing First” is an alternative to traditional congregate shelters. It is a strategy that prioritizes providing housing to unhoused people, creating a platform from which they can work to address the issues that led to homelessness in the first place. Housing First is guided by the idea that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before they can attend to their other needs, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues.
The Community Foundation partnered with Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance (CMHA), the Worcester County Continuum of Care organization, to convene a working group of service e providers, housing experts, municipal, state, and federal representatives to identify and secure the community infrastructure necessary to support and sustain a long-term system of temporary housing options across North Central Massachusetts.
The Working Group adopted a region-wide approach, seeking solutions to meet the needs of all North Central cities and towns, especially Leominster, Fitchburg, Gardner, Clinton, Athol and Orange. One major barrier to targeting more state, federal and philanthropic resources on this problem had been the lack of a central focal point for action. Our regional effort gave State officials confidence that communities were working to address the issue.
Results to Date - From zero to 100
The Working Group convened regularly and in sub-region groups to understand the scale of the problem, to specify the range of solutions and estimate the price tag of implementation. CMHA brought data and expertise to combine with local knowledge to gain an accurate understanding of the scale of homelessness in each sub-region.
With the support of the Working Group, Southern Middlesex Opportunity Council (SMOC) was engaged by the state to operate a local Days Inn as emergency non-congregate shelter on a temporary basis. Over the intervening period, SMOC was able to negotiate the purchase of the facility and is now converting it to a combination of emergency shelter and permanent supportive housing with 100 units.
In Clinton, plans have been developed to construct a new building to house WHEAT, the local social service agency, and provide eight units of non-congregate supportive shelter. The land has been purchased and fund-raising is underway to begin construction.