Theresa had already battled breast cancer two times before it came back when she was in her early 40s. She struggled with the treatments, surgeries, fulfilling the duties of a mother, and paying the bills for three years. In 2007, she and her son were on the brink of eviction.
“When you’re on the edge of being homeless, it’s hard to imagine that your life is ever going to feel normal,” said the Quincy native, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her son’s privacy.
But Father Bill’s & MainSpring, a Quincy- and Brockton-based organization that operates homeless shelters and other services, stepped in before Theresa became homeless and provided her with permanent housing in an apartment complex. She has been in a stable living environment for the past five years.
Theresa is one of hundreds who were homeless or at risk of being homeless who are in permanent housing because of Father Bill’s.
“Having a son and being so close to homelessness was tough. When I was sick he was 15 and in high school,” said Theresa, who is in remission. “The stability’’ provided by the nonprofit agency’s assistance, she said, “the fact that he had a home, that was big.”
Father Bill’s & MainSpring, formed when two separate organizations merged in 2007, has pioneered the “housing first” strategy to tackling homelessness since 1995, although its official Housing First program was launched in 2007.
Housing First focuses on providing people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, like Theresa, with permanent housing, rather than temporary space in a shelter. At the same time, Father Bill’s staff works with them to address factors that contributed to their homelessness.
“The main incentive behind the Housing First program is to begin to meet the goal . . . of ending homelessness,” said the organization’s housing director, April Connolly. “You can’t expect people to improve their lives and fix the factors that contributed to their homelessness when they’re still homeless.”
Massachusetts and, more recently the federal government, have caught on to this approach.
Last month, state officials announced a $5.3 million federal grant that is being funneled to organizations around the state, including Father Bill’s, to combat homelessness.
The Emergency Solutions Grant is an annual award given by the federal government and distributed by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
This year, a large chunk of the pie is allocated for “rapid rehousing.” According to Connolly, in past years, the grant’s funds were targeted at shelter services instead of permanent housing. This year, Father Bill’s received a little more than $480,000: $225,000 for rapid rehousing, $200,000 for shelter support, and $58,265 for tenancy preservation.
Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the state housing agency, confirmed that there has been a major shift in allocating these funds. “In the past, the ESG program was focusing on shelters, and providing more beds and more emergency shelter. But the federal government has reoriented its approach to a housing first strategy,” he said in a phone interview.
In other words, instead of providing a temporary bed and a roof for the homeless, the government is providing money to move them into permanent housing, as Theresa was. The funds are also going toward homelessness prevention and emergency shelters.
“We’re very excited about the grants because we’re trying to stop just managing homelessness and trying to end it. And the strategy that the federal government has in conjunction with this administration in Massachusetts fits that,” said John Yazwinski, president and CEO of Father Bill’s.
Yazwinski said that through experience, Father Bill’s has found the most effective way to deal with homelessness is not just to provide temporary accommodations, but to talk with people in shelters to assess their needs, and then quickly move them to a permanent home.
The most competitive of the three grant categories was shelter support, said Joyce Tavon, director of program development for Father Bill’s. It was also desperately needed, Yazwinski said, because the shelters are funded for about 125 beds and accommodate an average of 200 people per night. Connolly said there are sometimes as many as 250.
The shelter support funds will not only help with that deficit, but go toward the assessment that is a key step in moving people into housing.
“This money is going to be able to address people’s needs. We’re going to try to think of the shelter as not just a shelter,” Yazwinski said.Continued...