This is part 1 of a 2-part interview. Part 2 is here.
I chose a career of urban planning partly to tackle the American pandemic of chronic homelessness. Working at a substance abuse clinic which often served homeless clients, I saw how desperate a struggle it is. I learned how complex homelessness is. This interest compels me to join the conversation in Lowell about homelessness, poverty, and addiction.
Aurora recently posted about our recent visit to Living Waters. In addition, a few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to speak with David McCloskey, director of the Lowell Transitional Living Center. He summed up how dire the overall problem is:
People who are chronically homeless or long-term episodically homeless, average age at death is 49. So when you look at it as a public health issue, it’s huge. [If it were an environmental disaster], what would the federal government do? What would they do to solve that problem, because it is onerous? These people die at 49.
The issues have been in the news several times recently. Last spring, multiple agencies cleared several homeless camp (Sun). This was followed by a contentious City Council 6-2 vote to ban “panhandling” (Sun) in the downtown historic district. The panhandling ordinance has since been discussed in executive session, and its modification will be the subject of a future post. Meanwhile, statewide, the number of families being placed in motels is at an all-time high (Globe), driven by subsidy cuts and a high cost of housing.
What is LTLC?
LTLC is a nonprofit in operation since 1986 that contracts with Massachusetts to serve homeless residents of Merrimack Valley. We toured the facility, which was filled with remarkably good cheer. One building houses assessment, case management services, kitchen and a winter shelter with 40-45 cots. It’s topped by small, market rate apartments often occupied by former clients. The other building, renovated in 2006, has medium-term dorms large enough for 90 people and 12 long-term affordable apartments for formerly homeless adults. Although the older building itself is old and Spartan, clients and staff filled the space with optimism.
“Most people–when they think of LTLC–think that all we do is provide meals, which we do and we do well, and provide a bed, and we do and we do well,” said Mr. McCloskey. However, he noted that people unfamiliar with LTLC often overlook its case management services and counseling. These services assist clients in finding treatment, jobs, and permanent housing.
LTLC is working to increase its access to affordable, permanent housing. In this “Housing First” model, a center finds clients affordable, stable housing  as quickly as possible. Usually this is an apartment, but sometimes the most appropriate housing is a nursing home or other program. Other issues are addressed after housing is obtained. With “Housing First” sobriety is not required: the only requirements are that clients must continue to meet with their case manager, promise to be a good neighbor, and pay at least 30% of their income. In this model, about 85% of clients nationally remained housed after two years. Housing First is gaining nation-wide attention and is successfully tackling veteran homelessness in Phoenix, AZ. Utah found an apartment and social worker costs about $5,670 less than ER and jail stays annually for the average homeless person.
However, success requires not just housing, but social services. State-funded LTLC programs assist with first/last month rent, help guarantee rent to landlords, and negotiate issues between landlords and clients. Depending on client need, LTLC provides job placement working with the Career Center, GED education through the Lowell Adult Education Department, Mental Health services through Elliot Community Human Services, assistance accessing disability benefits, and references to detox programs with 12-step programs hosted on site.
The Sun’s Column blog recently discussed difficulties the shelter had in previous years that Mr. McCloskey credited to significant turnover in leadership, poor funding, and the resultant lack of staff and ongoing training. Since 2011, the shelter has made remarkable improvements. LTLC saw emergency shelter residents go down in 2011 to a low 40-50 per month, with assistance from the 2010 Federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program and the City of Lowell Continuum of Care.
However, the statewide affordable housing shortage and funding cutbacks have created new needs: the male dorm is now often full, and only 8 beds are available in the women’s dorm. Normally, men formerly living on the street coming in from winter would be able to have a dorm bed if they would stay sober. Now, the winter program has sometimes exceeded the number of cots LTLC has, and the shelter provides the overflow clients with extra blankets to sleep on the floor.
Who is homeless in Lowell?
In Lowell, I’ve heard a lot of questions about the nature of homeless people. Where they come from, why they’re homeless, and if they’re the same people we see asking for money downtown. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires local communities to submit counts of homeless individuals. Out of about 535 sheltered and 25 unsheltered homeless people, more than a third are children under 18. Around 12% of the total are chronically homeless, 18% are severely mentally ill, and 20% have substance abuse problems .
LTLC serves only single adults, which represent a little less than 40% of homeless persons in Lowell. Mr. McCloskey added texture to this number, recounting the presentations he used to do for businesses and colleges:
I would do my homeless Rorschach test, and say, ‘who is the person you see when you close your eyes,’ and typically it was a middle-aged man, and they would talk about him being disshelved, maybe needing a shave, graying hair. …That’s probably about 40% of my client base. But there’s 60% out there that have other issues that made them homeless, many of which they had control over.
These issues are most often a single devastating event such as a fire, a job loss, or a medical issue. In addition, Mr. McCloskey noted that an increasing number of young people are seeking shelter. He explained that the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) charges LTLC with providing services to anyone from the region consisting of Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, and surrounding communities, and about 85% of LTLC’s intakes come from this region. Other clients may stay for three days, but must ultimately return to their home community to avoid being assigned multiple case managers, physicians, and others.
Notably, people come from across the region to Lowell, simply because Lowell provides a concentration of services. A social security office, ID registry, mental health facilities, and Lowell Community Health Center are all reachable by foot from Lowell’s central neighborhoods. Mr. McCloskey says that because of poor public transit and the expense of car ownership, “…it makes sense for [clients] to try to house themselves so they can walk wherever they have to go.” In addition, Lowell has more emergency shelter beds than the similarly-sized Lawrence.
Mr. McCloskey and I also talked about Lowell’s and Massachusetts’s policy toward homelessness and panhandling, and what interested citizens could do. Look for that in our next post!
1. Using the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s definition of housing costing no more than 33% of the household’s income.↩
2. January 2013 “Point in Time” counts. Of course, the number fluctuates over time.↩