Western Mass. housing advocates measure challenges at gathering

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-15-2023 3:11 PM

HOLYOKE — Twice facing the trauma of eviction and once making a vehicle home for herself and her four children, as well as living inside a mold-filled apartment, Shaundell Diaz of Springfield brings firsthand knowledge of homelessness.

Now the coordinator of the Three County Continuum of Care in Greenfield, a program that assists unhoused people in Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties, Diaz is calling on state leaders to strengthen Rental Assistance for Families in Transition and the first-time homebuyers program, as well as provide legal assistance to those facing eviction and displacement.

“State investment is needed in programs that work and to make them work even better,” Diaz said. “We can do better. We must do better.”

Yet at a Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness regional gathering, “Housing Justice Happens Here,” Friday morning at the Kittredge Center at Holyoke Community College, the seventh such gathering, advocates for getting everybody housed acknowledged they are facing significant challenges coming out of the pandemic, with resources diminished and the number of people experiencing homelessness rising to a five-year high.

Gerry McCafferty, administrator of Hampden County Continuum of Care in Springfield, presented data from the Point in Time Count done on Jan. 26, showing that 3,305 people are homeless in the four westernmost state counties, comprising 2,288 families and 1,017 individuals, up 24% in two years. That includes 255 in Hampshire County and 110 in Franklin County.

The count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While hotel rooms and other options were provided at the onset of the pandemic, and 1,097 affordable units are in development, an estimated 11,000 homes for low- and moderate-income individuals and families are needed in the region, according to the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts. That means there simply are not enough places for people to live.

“These numbers reflect what our shelter and housing providers are seeing every day on the ground: a constant stream of people seeking shelter and a lack of housing options available to respond to the need,” McCafferty said.

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At the same time, lessons were learned in 2020.

“We know what works,” McCafferty said. “We have to figure out how to fund it and do it.”

With the event being held for the first time since 2019, about 150 people gathered in person, along with 100 or so taking part virtually, ranging from legislative leaders and service and shelter providers to those who head local agencies, health care and businesses. Among those present in the room were Sens. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, Jacob Oliveira, D-Ludlow, and John Velis, D-Westfield; Reps. Aaron Saunders, Lindsay Sabadosa, Dan Carey, Mindy Domb, and Pat Duffy; Valley Community Development Director Alexis Breiteneicher and Way Finders Executive Director Keith Fairey; and Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action Pioneer Valley.

Pamela Schwartz, who coordinates the network, said “grim facts” were presented, but that going big in response is still possible. “We know we are capable of bold action, because we’ve taken it,” Schwartz said.

The network released its housing justice platform, which includes preventing displacement, preserving existing affordable housing, creating more affordable housing, and meeting the needs of people who are unhoused.

Helping hands

One of the themes that emerged during the 90-minute meeting was how to encourage more communities, especially those that have little to no affordable housing, to do their part.

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia said his city has pop-up shelters and new supportive housing and that 21% of housing stock is low-income and affordable, with 100 more of these homes coming online soon, along with a resiliency hub for the unhoused.

Garcia noted what he received from Holyoke as a child. “My family growing up benefited from Holyoke’s compassion,” he said.

But the elevated trajectory of compassion is not sustainable in Holyoke, he said, and more area communities have to be more like Holyoke, Northampton and Amherst in doing their part.

“We can’t be the only communities absorbing our state’s problems,” Garcia said, encouraging Select Board members in small communities to join the network.

In fact, Schwartz said all towns are welcome in the city-town collaboration under the umbrella of the network. “We are a one-stop shop,” Schwartz said.

Systemic problems

Those at the meeting were welcomed by Christina Royal, the outgoing president of the community college, who calls housing a means of lifting up and supporting the region in its growth.

“Nothing can happen in a community if people don’t have housing options,” Royal said.

Legislative action that would guarantee the right to counsel, and Gov. Maura Healey’s commitment to housing, were mentioned.

Fairey said a housing bond bill in progress has to be larger than the one five years ago. “It’s not big enough at $1.8 billion,” Fairey said.

He also called for people to be loud and vocal in support of projects, noting that there has to be a fight against racism and classism. “We all have a role to play,” Fairey said.

Black people are 4.6 times as likely, and Hispanic people 2.9 times as likely, as white people to become homeless.

“This is systemic racism in housing and employment,” McCafferty said.

Tanisha Arena, executive director of Arise for Social Justice, said homelessness is part of capitalism. “We have to bring white savagery and racism into the conversation,” Arena said. Arena also asked people to dismantle institutions that uphold homelessness.

Alvina Brevard, a Holyoke native who directs the Division of Housing Stabilization for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said the event was inspiring.

“You continue to motivate DHCD to remain nimble and transformative,” Brevard said. “I believe that in order for us to endure, we must deal with opposition, and not be fearful to stand up for opportunities to make change in the community.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>