More encampments, fewer shelter beds for homeless

More encampments, fewer shelter beds for homeless

WORCESTER, Mass. — What many think of home looks different for a homeless Worcester man named James.

“I hate it,” James told Boston 25 News.

Worcester’s Quality of Life Task Force brought us to James on top of a rusty, large decaying bridge with large holes leading to a rocky, shallow river below.

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“I manage to stay warm here and there [on] friends' couches [or] whatever,” James explained.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Mattie Castiel said the health of homeless people is significant to everyone.

“They are the ones in the community,” Castiel said. “Those are the one who may be the super spreaders.”

Twisting around a narrow path along the riverbank, the outreach team brought us to a homeless campsite complete with dishes, officer furniture, a dinner table and a series of tents.

“We do connect people to services,” said a member of the team. “They have moved, unfortunately, they do come back.”

The team goes to encampments regularly to engage homeless people trying to persuade them to get mental health and substance abuse services they need, as well as shelter. Once cold weather comes, they intensify those efforts.

This year, there are concerns over available shelter space.

Worcester has the Southern Middlesex Opportunity Council on Queen Street and the Martin Luther King Building on Chandler Street, which are open. In November, the Ascension Church on Vernon Street will begin serving as a shelter, according to the city.

What the city can’t easily plan for is the amount of people who may be forced into homelessness due to the pandemic.

“We’re certainly worried about that,” Castiel said.

Worcester is in the process of dividing space in shelters for social distancing and getting tests, so COVID-19 testing of those using shelters can be done weekly, Castiel added.

As for James, the outreach team was able to get him into housing; he’ll move in before winter.

“I’m ecstatic about it,” James said emphatically.

From western Massachusetts to Cape Cod, there are fewer beds compared to last year for the homeless in shelters, according to the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

“We estimate anywhere from [an] 800-to-1,000 deficit in shelter beds,” said Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. “We also need to calculate in the people who will be falling into homelessness as a result of the crisis.”

In Boston, at the Pine Street Inn, the shelter has 200 fewer beds than last winter, according to a Lyndia Downie, president and executive director.

“We agree there are more encampments in Boston as a result of less shelter capacity, as well as other programs that may be closed due to COVID,” Downie said. “Finding and siting additional affordable housing and shelter is difficult due to zoning issues and neighborhood/town concerns. No one wants to see the street numbers go up, but most people don’t want affordable housing or shelters in their community.”

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