The Patriot Ledger: Housing boom is a bust for Quincy’s homeless

March 3, 2019

There are no houses on Broad Street, but on a February morning with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees, about 140 people are waking up there to start their day.

They are guests at Father Bill’s Place, the only homeless shelter in Quincy, and it’s busy.

Men and women, wearing hats and draped in scarves, huddle at the back of the parking lot to smoke cigarettes. People come and go through the double doors of the old brick building.

Inside, the narrow hallways are teeming with staff and shelter guests. Laundry spills into the hallway as dozens of sheets and pillowcases are stuffed into industrial-sized washing machines.

Breakfast has already been served, but the cafeteria is still filled with people reading, talking and drinking coffee. With temperatures this cold, most of the shelter’s guests won’t be traveling too far today, said John Yazwinski, executive director of Father Bill’s & Mainspring.

These are the signs of a homeless shelter bursting at the seams, and it is happening in a city where condominium and apartment construction is booming. Developers who see Quincy as a hub of growth and opportunity have built 3,800 new homes here over the past decade. But nearly all of them are high-end apartments and condos with price tags far out of reach for low-income families, retirees living on a fixed income and even full-time blue-collar workers.

Developers building 10 or more apartments in Quincy are required by local zoning bylaw to price at least 10 percent of the homes within state and federal affordability standards, or pay into the city’s affordable housing trust fund. Most opt to pay.

The trust fund has amassed more than $21 million, only one-third of which has been dedicated to creating more affordable homes in Quincy. The city has yet to come up with a plan on how to spend the remainder.

Meanwhile, stagnant wages combined with rising rents and home prices, years-long wait lists for public housing and a shortage of housing for recovering addicts and the mentally ill have created a perfect storm for those trying to lift themselves out of homelessness, experts say. As rents rise, more families and elderly are being pushed from their homes and neighborhoods, leaving shelters and social service agencies struggling to meet the demand.

At Father Bill’s, the 65 bunk beds in the men’s dormitory and 24 in the women’s are no longer enough to serve the number of people who appear on the shelter steps every night. Most nights, the shelter houses twice the 75 guests for which it receives state money. That number can be even higher during the winter.

Those who arrive early and guests who have stayed longer at the shelter get the beds. The rest have to make do with 3-inch-thick, foam-filled, plastic emergency mattresses. There are dozens of them stacked in corners all around the Broad Street shelter, ready to be deployed for anyone who needs a place to sleep. Come nightfall, the light-blue mattresses will be scattered across the cafeteria and conference rooms. Any room with available floor space becomes a makeshift dormitory.

“We take care of anyone who walks up to our door,” Yazwinski said.

Christine Durham who has been staying at Father Bill’s Place for six weeks, said she slept on a mattress on the floor for the first five weeks and was grateful to have it.

“It’s a warm bed to stay in. It’s better than being outside in the freezing cold,” she said.

Durham, 30, has been homeless off and on since 2014 when she moved out of her mother’s Charlestown home. In the years since, she’s bounced around the Boston region, living in homes she later had to leave because she couldn’t afford the rent, she said. She has stayed with friends or family and sometimes on the streets.

“There have been days, weeks, months where I haven’t had a place to stay,” she said.

Durham said she has been drug-free since October, her longest period of sobriety since she got addicted to crack and heroin eight years ago. The years of drug use left her with endocarditis, a dangerous bacterial infection of the heart’s inner lining that is common among drug users and can leave its victims with lifelong repercussions.

There are others like Durham at Father Bill’s, but Yazwinski said the shelter is seeing more families and older people as the region’s homeless population grows. The number of guests has grown over the past three years from an average 100 per night in fiscal 2017 to an average of 120 per night this year, a 20 percent increase. Yazwinski said the numbers are even higher this winter. In January, an average of 140 guests per night sought shelter at Father Bill’s Place.

State numbers mirror the city’s increase in the homeless population. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports 20,068 people are homeless in Massachusetts, a 14 percent jump over last year and a 32.7 percent spike over the past decade, a faster rate of growth than any other state. Meanwhile, the national homelessness rate has dropped 14.5 percent since 2007, from 647,258 to 552,830.

A worker earning minimum wage in Massachusetts last year, then $11 per hour, would need to work 104 hours per week — more than double the standard work week — to afford a fair-market-value, two-bedroom apartment, according to the report “Out of Reach” by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

A worker living in the Boston region would have to put in even longer hours because rents are higher.

A federal rent voucher for low-income families is $1,495 on average for a two-bedroom apartment in Massachusetts and only slightly more for high-rent areas. In Quincy, for example, it is $1,740, still hundreds below the market rate, which can be $2,800 or more.

Most landlords require the first and last months’ rent and a security deposit from new tenants, a daunting financial challenge for someone like Durham who is struggling to find a home.

Local advocates for the homeless, including Kelly Turley, associate director of the Coalition for the Homeless, say the state’s homeless numbers are the tip of the iceberg.

“We know it’s actually much, much higher,” she said, because people living temporarily with friends or family, as Durham did, are not counted.

“That’s often how homelessness plays out in Massachusetts,” Turley said. “People may not literally be on the street or in a shelter, but they don’t have a permanent or even a semi-permanent place to stay.”

Also, various agencies and organizations use different definitions for homelessness. Federal studies count only people living in shelters or transitional housing or identified as sleeping in public places.

William Scherber, 56, who spent 20 years living outdoors before moving into a studio apartment on Willard Street on Feb. 1, would not have been counted among the homeless because he lived off the grid, hidden in an encampment off the highway or squatting in doorways.

Scherber, who collects disability benefits, was able to get off the streets thanks to assistance from Metro Housing and Interfaith Social Services, which connected him with state and federal grants to help him pay move-in costs.

Jeff Landis of Metro Housing said the number of Quincy households receiving help through the state-funded Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program has doubled over the past three years. Quincy families collectively received $136,194 in assistance last year, the third-highest amount of the 29 communities Metro Housing serves, behind Boston and Chelsea. The program helps homeless people like Scherber get off the streets or out of relatives’ homes and into their own. It also helps families and individuals struggling to pay for rent and utilities stay in their homes.

Shelters such as Father Bill’s & Mainspring, which operates another shelter in Brockton, are meant to be community safety nets, Yazwinski said. They are often the last option for people who are thrown out of treatment facilities, released from jail, discharged from hospitals or evicted from homes and would otherwise be on the streets. But lately he has seen people staying longer in the shelter, another symptom of the housing shortage and the lack of affordable housing, he said.

Tommy Ronan, a 60-year-old former ironworker, has been staying at Father Bill’s Place for six months. He’s considered “chronically homeless” based on the length of his stay at Father Bill’s, and is using the shelter’s support services toward a goal of living on his own as early as June.

He said he spent nearly two years living behind a dumpster behind the Weymouth United Methodist Church on Broad Street. On the coldest nights, he would pry open the clothing donation bin, jump inside and bundle himself up in the clothes. Finally, he went to Father Bill’s.

“To me, the shelter had a stigma,” said Ronan, who became homeless after developing post-traumatic stress disorder following a domestic violence attack in 2016. “For some reason, living behind a dumpster was better than living in a shelter to me.”

Ronan has received counseling at the shelter and is earning the minimum wage of $12 per hour through a program that pays Father Bill’s guests for janitorial services. The shelter has also connected him with programs that will help him find a home.

But the finite resources that are helping Ronan turn his life around are getting stretched thinner and thinner as more people need help.

“We had a few years where the number was going down. It felt like we were making a dent,” Yazwinski said.

But in recent years he’s watched the homeless population swell.

He and other advocates for the homeless say it’s a misconception that people like Ronan, Scherber and Durham who are struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues make up the bulk of the homeless population.

Turley, the associate director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said discrimination, racism, sexism, substance use, mental health problems and domestic violence all contribute to homelessness.

“But they are not nearly as big as the housing crisis and lack of affordable housing,” she said.

Advocates say the region’s housing crisis has sent the number of homeless older residents and families skyrocketing in recent years, as the production of luxury condominiums and apartment complexes outstrips the amount of affordable housing being constructed. The wait time for a rent voucher through Metro Housing is more than 10 years.

And it’s not only people living at or below the poverty line who are struggling to find affordable housing. Studies by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition show a growing gap between income and the cost of affordable homes and apartments for the middle class.

Durham said she is trying to save for an apartment so she can leave Father Bill’s Place and be reunited with her 9-year-old son. She’s still recovering from the bacterial infection and hasn’t been able to work in months, which she said has made it nearly impossible to save. She’s not sure she’ll ever be healthy enough to return to work as a waitress and bartender, she said, but shelter caseworkers are helping her apply for disability benefits and subsidized housing.

Meanwhile, Durham said, she’s committed to staying sober and finding a permanent place to live so she can regain custody of her son, or least get approved visits with him.

“I can’t fight for that until I have a place of my own,” she said.


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