, Salem, MA

December 5, 2013

Our view: New commitment needed to fight homelessness

The Salem News

---- — The “hotel homeless” problem is on the rise again in Danvers.

Since the summer months, the town has seen a nearly 60 percent increase in the number of homeless families living in Danvers motels. On Aug. 20, there were 112 such families. On Nov. 26, two days before Thanksgiving, the number had risen to 181. The total includes more than 300 children.

The numbers are no better statewide, where the number has hit an all-time high of nearly 2,100 families, according to the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

The state places the families in motels and hotels at a cost of $82 a night — not including the cost to the host communities — when no other housing options remain. State officials said they plan to end the program next year, but the recent increase in the number of homeless families may put that promise to the test.

In October, Gov. Deval Patrick visited Salem to tout his administration’s commitment in the North Shore. The list included many building projects both completed and proposed, ranging from the new courthouse complex to parking garages in Salem and Beverly to state-of-the-art science labs for Salem State University.

Those investments are key to the long-term economic health of the region. The administration has fallen far short, however, in its efforts to combat homelessness, a failure shared across all tiers of government — state, local and federal. That has to change, and soon. Those hoping to solve the problem would do well to look to local experts on the North Shore.

In the short term, the federal government — the Obama administration and Congress — needs to restore $20 million in cuts to the Section 8 housing program. The voucher program allows families to pay 30 percent of their income for rent, with the government picking up the rest. It was a key tool in moving families from motels to more stable apartment life.

The state, working with local communities, needs to do a much better job creating affordable housing. Vacancy rates have dropped in the Greater Boston area, bringing with them a rise in rents many families can’t afford.

“At the root of this, the reasons vary, but there is just a real fundamental lack of affordable housing in general, but acutely here on the North Shore,” Elise Sinagra, director of the Beverly-based nonprofit Family Promise, told reporter Bethany Bray last month. “We live in a beautiful place, but an expensive place.”

Family Promise, which operates through private grants and donations, is one of the local bright spots in the fight against homelessness. The group houses homeless families overnight in a network of churches and houses of worship. A social worker is there to help families get back on their feet.

In its first six months, the group served 16 people in six families. Just as importantly, it trained close to 600 volunteers from more than 30 congregations on the North Shore.

The town of Danvers continues to lead other municipalities in its commitment to treat those in its motels as neighbors while attempting to solve the greater problem. Everyone from town officials to teen recreation department volunteers to the People to People Food Pantry have done all they can to help, even as the rising number of homeless puts a strain on town resources.

Town officials have also shown a commitment to creating more affordable housing, even turning over an abandoned house on Coolidge Road to the Affordable Housing Trust, when it would have been easier to sell it to a developer looking to raze it to build a high-end home.

That’s not even counting the long-awaited Conifer Hill Commons, the new complex of modestly priced apartments that were built without the need to resort to the use of the state’s 40B “anti-snob” zoning law. The new apartments — there will be 90 units when work is completed — aren’t low-income housing, but they do increase the stock of affordable housing.

Danvers’ approach shows a real understanding of the problem in both the short and long term. Others would do well to follow their lead.