Three volunteers at LTLC

What can Lowellians do about homelessness? LTLC Interview Part 2

Yesterday, I posted about LTLC and the makeup of the Lowellian homeless population. Today, I’ll focus on Mr. McCloskey’s perceptions of Lowell and Massachusetts policy and what Lowellians can do to help out.

Local Policy and Homelessness: Funding, Panhandling, and Camps

Although LTLC places clients in housing across the region when appropriate, many have argued that housing many of the most high-need individuals in Lowell unfairly impacts the City. I’ve heard some folks argue that a concentration of lower-income people hurts people’s perceptions of downtown, but the reality may be more subtle and deserves its own post. [1]

However, there may also be an unfair drain on financial or staff resources. Because HUD largely funds only housing, LTLC often receives funds from other sources for additional support services. For example, the City of Lowell and the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) helps fund five case managers [2]. Homeless people come from all communities, making it everyone’s problem. However, host shelter communities may indeed bear a disproportionate amount of cost. Mr. McCloskey mentioned, “It would be nice if the outlying communities would support homeless efforts in and around the three major areas, Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill, all of whom have shelters.” He noted that Boston, Worcester, and Springfield all have concentrations of services and similar issues.

Nevertheless, Mr. McCloskey finds Lowell especially supportive:

I do have to give Lowell a plug. My experience in Lowell in terms of sensitivity to homeless has been excellent. The day I walked in, I had a call from the chief of police, I had a call from the city manager’s office who wanted to meet with me, wanted to know how they could help.

In addition, Mr. McCloskey supports Lowell’s efforts to move people out of camps, as they are more appropriately housed in shelters. He said of Lowell, “They do it in a much more sensitive way than I see practiced in other communities.” LTLC helps unsheltered people through an outreach program, encouraging them to seek shelter and long-term housing options.

We also discussed the panhandling ordinance. Mr. McCloskey did not personally know of any LTLC clients who panhandled, but mentioned that he did not know everyone in the winter program. It is unclear how many that solicit money in Lowell are homeless and how many are Lowell residents. However, Mr. McCloskey said:

For some people, passive panhandling is their only source of income, and the question could be asked, “how does that differ legally from other groups, agencies or non-profits?” Most courts have found that “freedom of speech” prevails and has restricted the use of codes barring panhandling. [3]

Regardless, Mr. McCloskey drew a defined line between passive panhandling and aggressive panhandling, such as preventing a person from getting into their car or obstructing traffic. He stated, “That’s illegal. That’s theft. And that should be dealt with accordingly.” Finally, Mr. McCloskey recounted an interesting story from Worcester:

We had 28 units of sober housing. Every morning, we used to have a morning meeting, with all 28 individuals. …I asked them, ‘what’s your opinion on panhandling’? Well, the two things that came out was that a lot of people that panhandle aren’t homeless, and that has been borne out by some of the review that the police in Worcester did. And second, 75% of the residents of this one sober program, said they wished they hadn’t panhandled, because it kept them from getting services sooner.

Needless to say, the question is complex. However, there are some possible ways Lowellians can help.

Regional Trends and Local Solutions: What can we do?

I’ve learned that Massachusetts, like many Northeast states, has an affordable housing problem. While homelessness is actually decreasing in the Midwest, Massachusetts now pays to house more families in motels than in homeless shelters due to overfull shelters. Other families are housing or food insecure. (A recent report estimated 700,000 residents periodically struggle with hunger.)

The costs for hotels are much higher than providing affordable housing. Nevertheless, the HomeBASE program, which provides financial assistance for rent or other services, is expiring. Meanwhile, the Federal sequester affected LTLC with a 5-8% cut in contracts. In addition, the SNAP program reverted to pre-recession levels in November. Mr. McCloskey explained that the SNAP program not only provided families with food, but also freed up cash for housing.

Many programs are dependent on local funding. The winter program that provides emergency cots for the coldest months can only be active for as long as there is funding. The City of Lowell provides $20,000 and FEMA may provide some additional funding, but staffing costs are high. Private foundations and businesses provide most of the funds. Additionally, about half of meals provided by LTLC are funded by local businesses, the faith community, and individuals through a dinner donor program. $300 provides one dinner for 120 people.

Three volunteers at LTLC

Community Service Helpers (LTLC flickr)

In addition to donations, LTLC accepts volunteers. Interested parties can contact LTLC to obtain a list of current volunteer positions. Many volunteer in the kitchen to cook or serve meals, while others sort through donated clothing to screen out clothing for children or unacceptable clothing. However, there are also professional volunteer needs, such as IT, web development, administration assistance, media, and fundraising. Food banks and other Lowell agencies also always need help!

Political action is also possible. There was a recent meeting on the issue of Massachusetts family homelessness, and letters to state and federal congresspeople on the unacceptability of housing families in hotels might be particularly effective.

I am proud to be living in a city that is engaging with the homeless problem, but troubled the issue is often oversimplified and overlooked by the mainstream. As I’ve moved forward in my career and spend most of my time combing through transit statistics or researching land use codes, it is easy to forget the “wicked” problems of poverty and homelessness I still hope to address. Living in a state that is heralded for its med-tech economic engine but has overflowing homeless shelters reminds me to always keep the issue in mind. If anyone has comments, I welcome them on Facebook or in the comments below.

1. The example that was linked here has since been removed.

2. Much of social service funding ultimately comes from federal grants that the City of Lowell passes through to area nonprofits. However, securing the funding takes a great deal of work. I hope to report on this process from the City’s perspective soon, along with my thoughts about the problems with funding social programs locally.

3. Early in January, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts contacted the City with first amendment concerns (Sun). The proposed ordinance has since been amended. This may be the subject of a future post.


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