Lowell Eying a New Approach to Ending Homelessness
LOWELL -- Homeless people wandering downtown streets and an overcrowded shelter on Middlesex Street have been thorns in city officials’ sides for decades.
They’ve heard the complaints time and time again from residents and business owners, who stress that homelessness in the city has now reached a tipping point -- an issue that must be addressed immediately.
City leaders, chiefly City Manager Eileen Donoghue, recently responded by forming a task force, in the hopes of significantly lowering the homeless population in Lowell.
Donoghue emphasized on Tuesday that they’re looking to follow the lead of Worcester, which successfully moved to a sustainable housing model for homeless individuals, reducing the number of people in the shelter.
“Sustainable housing is a much better program to support the needs of the population,” she said.
In this context, sustainable housing means placing people who would otherwise go to shelters at night in affordable housing within a short period of time, even same-day, Donoghue said. After placement, local organizations can offer wrap-around services to address any mental health and substance abuse issues.
While this approach has been implemented for families facing homelessness in Massachusetts, the same approach has not been widely applied for single adults facing homelessness in Lowell, she said.
The city manager’s task force includes key community leaders from around the city and region, including the heads of Community Teamwork Inc., Greater Lowell Community Foundation, Lowell Plan, Southern Middlesex Opportunity Council and more.
“It’s very encouraging to see this total commitment to address this issue,” Donoghue said.
Worcester last year formed the City Manager’s Task Force for Sustaining Housing First Solutions. Lowell officials have researched that model, forming their own group that will receive advice from the same consultant who assisted Worcester.
Lowell has hired Barbara Poppe as the consultant -- the former executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.
“She understands this issue inside and out,” Donoghue said.
Jim Cuddy of the Southern Middlesex Opportunity Council, which runs the Lowell Transitional Living Center on Middlesex Street, has acknowledged that the shelter isn’t working, according to Lowell Plan Executive Director James Cook, a member of the task force.
About 90 people sleep at the shelter on an average night, and more people stay there during cold winter nights. The shelter gets overcrowded, and then homeless people spill on to downtown streets between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. Federal funding for shelters has also slipped in recent years with more funds going to sustainable housing models Donoghue said.
“The impact is all over the downtown, and they’re not getting the addiction and mental-health services they need,” Cook said.
This is the first time that Cuddy and the Southern Middlesex Opportunity Council are on the same page with the city, trying to address this issue, according to Cook.
Cuddy in an email said the council is “deeply grateful” to Lowell for taking the lead in addressing this issue of homelessness.
“We look forward to working with the City and its partners,” he wrote. “It’s only through everyone working together that the issue of single adult homelessness can be addressed.”
The task force will hold its first meeting next Wednesday, and plans to complete a report -- with help from the consultant -- by the end of July.
“This is an important discussion to be had,” said Jay Linnehan, executive director of the Greater Lowell Community Foundation. “We will definitely get this done.”
Will the task force put the shelter out of business?
“That’d be a great thing,” Linnehan responded.
Details of the task force were announced during meeting with Sun editors and reporters. Besides Donoghue, Cook and Linnehan, also in attendance were Karen Frederick, Community Teamwork executive director; Diana Tradd, city Division of Planning and Development director; and Craig Thomas, DPD deputy director.
At the City Council meeting Tuesday night Councilor James Milinazzo suggested getting representatives from the Coalition for a Better Acre and the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association involved.
The announcement comes several weeks after a motion by Councilor Karen Cirillo requested an update to the city’s 10-year homelessness plan, which expired last year. When she made the motion, she said she wants the city to become the first in the country to end homelessness.
At this week’s council meeting, she praised the response from the Donoghue.
“I like that we looked at the city of Worcester who had a similar mission last year,” she said. “We have such fantastic partners in the working group.”
Donoghue said she expects to present a full plan by the end of July.