Local leaders work on plan to end homelessness
The new strategy to end homelessness in Wareham is called "housing first," and it involves putting the homeless in homes.
If that sounds like stating the obvious, members of the newly formed Wareham Community Leadership Council on Homelessness say putting the homeless in homes involves a lot more than matching bodies and real estate.
"Housing first" aims to provide the homeless with homes -- and the stability they need to get their lives on track.
"If you stabilize their lives, then they're able to work, they're able to participate in their community in a meaningful way," said Jim Rattray, co-chair of the Leadership Council and vice president of marketing and public affairs for the Southcoast Health System.
The 12-person council has met only twice and is still trying to get its arms around the extent of Wareham homelessness.
A survey done for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development put the number of Wareham's homeless at 22 in 2012. Members of the clergy who work with the homeless say the number of "chronic homeless" may be as great as 50 with others moving in and out of homelessness.
Council members also added that many of the chronically homeless not only live on the streets, some of them also live out in the woods -- specifically, the woods behind Walmart in East Wareham.
"People exist out in the woods, with no contact or with very little contact with people in the community as we know it," said Tom Fitzpatrick, a member of the Leadership Council and a volunteer with Turning Point, a Wareham organization that provides temporary resources for the homeless or near-homeless.
Many of the "chronic homeless" simply do not want to be found, but local clergy may be starting to gain their trust through an emergency shelter program that has run for the past four winters.
In the program, called Nights of Hospitality, local churches take turns opening their doors to homeless for the night. The homeless get a warm meal and a place to sleep during the cold winter nights.
The participating churches have seen usage of the program increase over the years -- from three to five people stopping by in the beginning to 10 or more most recently.
Still, that leaves many homeless who do not use the program.
Council member Fitzpatrick is hopeful that once a homeless person sees another person using a successful "housing first" program, that person night consider also using the program.
"If you get them into housing, maybe that way you gain some credibility with the other subpopulation that you don't have access to … because those two populations talk to each other," said Fitzpatrick.
Housing first may also make economic sense.
The homeless population increases costs both in health care and in public safety, Rattray said.
Increased health costs are seen because the homeless use the emergency room even for non-emergency care. Once people are in homes, they tend to use the emergency room less, Rattray said.
Public safety costs arise due to more calls to the police, not only by the homeless themselves, but by other residents calling about the homeless, Rattray said.
"A relatively small number of people have a big economic impact," said David Shaw, a member of the Leadership Council and pastor at the Emmanuel Church of the Nazarene, one of the churches that participates in the Nights of Hospitality.
The Leadership Council is tasked with coming up with a plan, called the "Wareham Community Plan to End Homelessness," in late fall or early winter, Shaw said.
The Council is not tasked with implementing the plan, however. That responsibility will lie in a collaboration of organizations that could include nonprofits, alcohol-related addiction facilities, town government agencies, and state agencies, among others, Shaw said.
Though it is still too early to say anything definite, housing could come from repurposing existing housing stock, new construction, or renting from existing landlords, "or maybe all of that," Shaw said.
Attacking homelessness on the principle of housing first also has another motive, Fitzpatrick said.
"The reason [to support housing first] is because that is the national strategy, that's where all the funding lies," he said. "If you're going to try to solve a problem like this in a community like Wareham … you want to put forth a strategy that is highly supported by the state and federal government because you want to tap resources that are available."
Shaw had a different way explaining the need for housing first, using the old proverb: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
"This housing first is really an attempt to teach people how to fish," said Shaw. "A handout is never as good as helping people stand on their own two feet."