By Lorie Martiska
In 2011, Worcester celebrated reaching an important milestone. The City declared it was at “functional zero” for adult chronic homelessness, meaning that as people became homeless, the system was able to quickly provide support and housing, so that periods of being unhoused were rare and brief.
The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts had funded an initiative called Home Again, with $2.2 million. The project focused on Housing First, an evidence-based practice where people are housed as quickly as possible, and then offered services and support that they can choose to access if they wish. Case management was provided through Mass Health and occupancy funding provided by federal and state governments.
In November 2022, according to data from the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance (CMHA), there were 586 homeless people in the City ( of which 226 were unsheltered). Far from “functional zero”. So what happened?
Causes of Homelessness
Lack of Affordable Housing is the number one reason there are more homeless today than in 2011. The average one- bedroom apartment in Worcester costs $1500, and the supply is small, creating competition for a limited number of apartments. The Opioid epidemic and lack of low-barrier access to needed mental health and medical services have also contributed. Domestic violence and racial inequality are also factors that can lead to homelessness.
Larger cities like Worcester are often the most affected by this crisis because people seeking supports, transportation and jobs often flock to cities where resources are more readily available. For this reason, Worcester is working with a group of 14 of Massachusetts’ largest cities to ensure that no one City bears the burden for all, and that all can benefit from innovation and lessons learned.
So is homelessness solvable?
According to Community Solutions, a national organization leading the charge for “Built for Zero,” homelessness is indeed solvable. They note that homelessness is a societal choice, not a personal one. “Ending it takes improving systems, not blaming individuals,” according to their website www.communitysolutions.org
The National Alliance to End Homelessness agrees, noting that “housing is a platform for stability, and a key contributor for long-term recovery and relapse reduction for people who are homeless”.
They outline key solutions for ending homelessness:
* Coordinated approaches to delivering services, housing and programs
* Rapid Rehousing with short term rental assistance and supportive services
* Permanent Supported Housing for the most vulnerable, chronically homeless persons
* Coordinated entry, planning, and data collection
* Coordinated Crisis Response including outreach, coordinated entry, diversion, emergency shelters and permanent housing as end goal
* Increasing income through employment and connection to needed benefits to ensure sustainability of tenancy
What is happening in Worcester?
The good news is that most if not all of these elements are in place in Worcester, and the City and provider and housing agencies are working together to make progress toward the goal of ending homelessness.
Shelters are a piece of the solution, especially when they are structured to rapidly lead to rehousing individuals and families. Providing outreach, Housing First, Rapid Rehousing services, wraparound support and case management are also important facets of efforts to end homelessness in Worcester.
And for those who have the most complex needs, there are several permanent supported housing projects on the drawing board – a tiny village community on Stafford Street, conversion of the Quality Inn at Oriol Drive and a supported housing project on Lewis St.
Worcester has most elements of a strong plan, willing collaborators, resources through ARPA funding and other sources, and the empathy and concern to care for all its citizens. That is a formula for long term, sustainable progress. Time will tell if it is enough to end homelessness once and for all.
Lorie C. Martiska is vice president of Advancement, Open Sky Community Services.
Open Sky is a behavioral health provider, with 1,200 employees in more than 100 programs throughout Central Massachusetts. Open Sky provides a number of services for people experiencing homelessness, including a temporary winter shelter, rapid rehousing, case management, permanent supported housing and outreach.