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Despite Progress, Boston Will Not Meet Its Goal To Eliminate Chronic Homelessness


Boston has an ambitious goal.


MARTY WALSH: We're committed in the city of Boston to ending chronic homelessness. It means making housing the first priority rather than the end of a long journey.

SHAPIRO: That's Mayor Marty Walsh in 2015. He wanted to eliminate chronic homelessness by the end of 2018. Boston won't do that this year. But as Lynn Jolicoeur of WBUR tells us, the city has made a lot of progress in how it tackles long-term homelessness.

LYNN JOLICOEUR, BYLINE: In the past three years, Boston has gotten more than 650 adults who were chronically homeless out of shelters, off the streets and into permanent housing with support services. In that same time, more than a thousand additional people have become chronically homeless. That means without a home for 12 months either consecutively or spread over a few years.

BRIAN DESILVA: These were my waitlist updates.

JOLICOEUR: Boston native Brian DeSilva is one of them. The 53-year-old has depression and autism spectrum disorder. But that hasn't stopped him from actively searching for a home.

DESILVA: Some days are better than others. And then some days I'm like, why me? What did I do? It doesn't happen that often. And then I'm like, wait a minute. Just walk through the fire a little longer. Things will get better.

JOLICOEUR: Early this year, DeSilva landed on an official list the city of Boston now keeps of adults who are chronically homeless. It meant he got paired with an advocate, Kimberly Wilson, who's helped him apply for apartments.

KIMBERLY WILSON: And we heard back from Castle Square.


JOLICOEUR: DeSilva's profile was entered into a city software program that matches people on the list with available subsidized housing units. It's all part of a targeted effort that has Boston's homeless shelters, social service agencies and government departments working together. Before they worked in silos. Ian Gendreau from the city's Department of Neighborhood Development leads a weekly meeting of the people on the front lines of ending chronic homelessness.

IAN GENDREAU: We've got 75 people from the original chronic list who are on our current chronic list. We've got 42 clients with a pathway.

JOLICOEUR: But even as the group houses people, the list of those who are chronically homeless continues to grow. Mayor's adviser Laila Bernstein says city leaders didn't anticipate how massive the influx into the system would be. They hadn't tracked it before.

LAILA BERNSTEIN: Whereas now we have a database that allows us to see that. And we see more chaos, really, in the flow of the population than we could have known.

JOLICOEUR: Contributing to the chaos are the opioid epidemic and a steady stream of people coming from outside Boston for homeless services. There isn't nearly enough affordable housing despite the city's plan to create thousands of new units. In order to prevent chronic homelessness, there's a program to help people avoid taking a bed in a shelter.

JORDAN GONZALEZ: I was just staying with my mom, and it just didn't work out. She ended up losing her place.

JOLICOEUR: It's called front door triage. Twenty-five-year-old Jordan Gonzalez is being triaged by Reggie Santos after coming to Pine Street Inn.

REGGIE SANTOS: So you don't have nobody that you can call up for assistance and help you out as far as housing goes.

GONZALEZ: If I did, I would have called somebody.

JOLICOEUR: Santos tells Gonzalez where he can go to get on housing waitlists and receive help searching for a job. The triage program can also give small amounts of financial help. About a fifth of clients find another place to stay within a month. The concern is that those who don't will end up entrenched in the shelter system. The city's Ian Gendreau says some clients aren't ready to leave even when they have the opportunity.

GENDREAU: Especially if you've been in shelter for a long period of time, your social network is there, and your support network is there. And you could layer things on top of that, mental health problems or substance abuse problems or things like that. But the top of our list is just chockfull of people who aren't interested in housing.

JOLICOEUR: Brian DeSilva is more than interested.

DESILVA: Thank you.

JOLICOEUR: Two years after he became homeless...

DESILVA: It's nice.

WILSON: I like it. I like it.

DESILVA: (Unintelligible) And my bed here.


JOLICOEUR: ...He was recently matched with a studio apartment in Boston public housing.

DESILVA: I'm happy. It beats sleeping on a cot at a shelter. And I'll have my own space. And I can go on with my life.

JOLICOEUR: A fresh start for the new year. Meanwhile, Boston leaders say in 2019 they'll reassess their plan, and they'll set new goals for how to make sure when someone becomes homeless the experience is short-lived. For NPR News, I'm Lynn Jolicoeur in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Jolicoeur