This Monday, Bill Miller, Executive Director of Springfield, MA's Friends of the Homeless, sought out the press for an all-too-familiar story-- area emergency shelters are closing and the Worthington St. Shelter, already overcapacity, is worried.
Miller says that the 107 bed men's shelter has been overcapacity 15 of the last 20 days, and I know the women's 26-bed shelter is always full. On June 1st, the 30 bed, 6 nights a week shelter run by the Springfield rescue Mission will also close. Then what?
Unfortunately, in terms of publicity, this has not been a great month for the shelter.
On April 22, Springfield police raided a Worthington St. apartment and arrested two men for possession of cocaine. One of those men-- the buyer, not the seller-- was reported living at the shelter. On May 5, a bicycle-riding crack dealer arrested by the police turned out also to be a shelter resident. And last Thursday, in a situation so pathetic it's laughable, a shelter resident was arrested trying to break into an unmarked police car in a lot behind the Springfield Police Station!
Of course the media outlets will never pass up an opportunity to point out perps who live at the shelter-- just doing their job, they list everyone's address when available-- but I do wonder if Bill Miller is finding it difficult to take all the heat now that they don't have Open Pantry Community Services to kick around anymore. Well, let me clarify: of course the Open Pantry is still around, providing food to the hungry, but lack of local support plus state budget cuts forced the OP to close its Warming Place shelter. Now Friends of the Homeless operates Springfield's only year-round shelter for single people.
As might be expected, every arrest at Worthington St. shelter elicits public (but anonymous) comment on Springfield's Masslive forum calling for the closing of Worthington St.
But I haven't seen anyone tackle the question: what then? So let's play this out a bit.
Let's take a hundred-plus men who suddenly have no place to go. Does anyone think they will then leave town? Of the 159 single homeless people surveyed in January by the City of Springfield, 61% came from Springfield and 84% came from Hampden County! And before anyone starts going "Aha! 39% come from outside Springfield!" I'd like to point out that homeless people from Springfield are surely in Holyoke, Westfield and Northampton shelters.
So: they're homeless, they're still in Springfield, and, according to statistics, 30% have substance abuse issues and 15% (some of which are included in the 30%) are severely mentally ill. So let's accept (for the moment) the stereotype that all these men are likely to engage in criminal activity.
Would you rather have them living in the shelter, or looking for a place to sleep in your cellar, your car or your back doorstep?
Of course, we could just take them out and shoot them.
OR: We could treat substance abuse as a mental health issue and provide as much access to treatment as necessary. We could continue to support the city's Housing First strategy, which helps chronically homeless people find and maintain housing. We could support the expansion of the Worthington St. shelter, which, unfortunately, adds no new beds, but which will add some affordable efficiency apartments plus a day center where people can do job search, receive health care and take GED classes. I have a number of more radical solutions, but we'll leave them be for the moment.
I have frequently criticized the Worthington St. shelter and will probably continue to do so, but given that the shelter is now the only game in town, the last thing I want to see happen is to have it close down.
Photo from Faces of the Homeless.