The PIP shelter and what it means to Worcester

By District 4 City Councilor Barbara Haller

The story of the PIP Shelter is long and complex. While there have been many individuals who will testify to its success as a safety net of last resort, there are many more who will testify to its internal chaos, especially before SMOC took over control in 2005. Founded over thirty years ago to provide protection to public inebriates after the decriminalization of public drunkenness, there are few who would deny that the PIP has grown to be an enabler and magnet for anti-social behavior.

Over the past twenty years my position on the PIP moved from a call for better management, to supporting an effort to relocate it to an industrial area, to a cry for closing it. I came to realize that a 150 person warehouse for individuals experiencing homelessness for a wide variety of reasons couldn’t be fixed – regardless of who ran it or where it was located. Over time the city council, the city administration, and the community have come to join in common voice to close this shelter at 701 Main Street.

During those years of pushing for the shuttering of the PIP, the question of “where will ‘they’ go?” was part of every discussion. My answer to that question was always to explain that it is not the responsibility of the struggling neighborhood around 701 to bring solution to homelessness, but rather it is the responsibility of the whole community. I served on every task force as we searched for the best answers. All of these efforts failed to close the PIP but they each served to get us closer by educating more people to the complexity of the challenge and increasing the resolve to do better. Important leadership in the discussion was given by many, but the key leaders have been Scott Hayman (Director of Housing), Grace Carmark (Executive Director of Central Mass Housing Alliance), Jerry Schlater (former CEO of Community Healthlink), and William Breault (Chair of the Main South Alliance for Public Safety). The growing consensus that a regional wet shelter was not the answer was made stronger with the recent national and state commitments to end chronic homelessness.

In 2007, the City Manager’s Task Force on Homelessness released its Three Year Plan to End Homelessness in Worcester. Under the co-chairmanship of former Mayor Jordan Levy and former City Manager Jeff Mulford, the task force crafted a consensus strategy of homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing with wraparound services for those who become homeless. This report and the City Council’s unanimous support for it resulted in City Manager Michael O’Brien’s setting an administrative goal to close the PIP in 2009. True to his word, Mr. O’Brien formed the Worcester County Regional Network, appointed its Leadership Council, and hired Tom Gregory as the City’s Homelessness Program Coordinator.

Where we stand now: The Leadership Council, headed by City Manager O’Brien, is “designed to improve the county’s planning, housing development, service strategies, data collection and measurement to end homelessness in Worcester County.” The Leadership Council’s vision is the end homelessness in Worcester County. Its “overarching goal is to eliminate homeless shelters, to prevent homelessness and – when necessary – to assist people to find and maintain permanent housing with supportive services as needed.” Vital funding is been provided by federal and state government to support the Network’s efforts. The Leadership Council has been meeting regularly and will be issuing within the next month a request for proposals (RFP) for the components of the Network for approximately 500 individuals and families:

• Triage and case management
• Housing placement and stabilization, including rental subsidies
• Assessment Center with up to 25 short term stay beds
• Data collection and analysis

When the PIP will close: The responses to the RFP will be evaluated, work will be awarded, and the Network will begin to emerge by the Fall 2009. When the essential pieces of the Network are in place and the kinks worked through, the PIP will become a closed shelter. This means that individuals can enter only by referral and due to overflow conditions at the Assessment Center. Once overflow needs are met elsewhere, the PIP will close permanently. We do not have a specific date for the PIP to close, but it is certainly expected to fully and permanently close within 2010. This is a year behind the City Manager’s stated goal, but the delay is necessary to put the Network in place and become fully operational.

What to expect: As the Network grows the population at the PIP will decline. This has already started due to efforts of SMOC and CHL. Individuals normally served by the PIP will be placed in permanent housing – in lodging houses, in apartments and, in a few cases, congregate houses – throughout the Worcester area region. Aggressive outreach to homeless individuals will increase with the goal of convincing these individuals that housing is indeed an option for them, along with all needed support services to keep them housed. Individuals in need will be triaged by professionals to determine the best options for services.

Will the Network be successful: We don’t know if the Network will end or significantly reduce homelessness. There are indications from around the nation that we can be successful and we expect Worcester County Regional Network to meet expectations. Data collection is a critical piece of the Network, along with active and continuous analysis of that data. The intent is to quickly identify gaps and problems in the Network and to respond with solution. That being said, this is a new way of addressing a complex problem and there are bound to be failures and shortcomings. The Leadership Council is committed to keeping their eyes open to build on successes and eliminate failures.

What the community can do to help: The community is a key partner in the Network and will provide us with important feedback as to success and failure. Success will be measured not only by a decline in the number of homeless persons but equality in the quality of life in the neighborhoods where the Network operates.

We need to continue to report problem properties though our neighborhood associations, elected officials, and the city’s customer service line (508 929 1400). The Worcester Police Department, Inspectional Services, Fire Department, and the Property Review Team will be counted on to continue their work to quickly identify neighborhood problems and to bring remedy. We expect to end homelessness not by lowering standards for neighborhoods so that previously homeless individuals can now live in an apartment but by maintaining/raising standards and providing individuals with services they needed to remain in housing. The neighborhood is a key partner in making this Network a success.

What about 701 Main Street and its surrounding neighborhood: Once the PIP is closed to homeless individuals the neighborhood around it can begin its recovery in earnest. This will take committed and significant resources as 701 has been a magnet for bad behaviors for decades and its reputation is known long and far. We will need infrastructure, business, and housing supports along with intense police presence as we redefine this area. Key to this is the adaptive reuse of 701 Main to a non-homeless service use, an active neighborhood association, and continued support for resources. The recovery will take time, but many already share the vision of a vibrant neighborhood that celebrates its architectural beauty, its historical contributions, and its closeness to downtown.

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