History Matters: A Reflection on the Family Homelessness System


A Reflection from Ed Chase

 Various roles at the MA Dept of Public Welfare (1983-1995) including Client Services, Housing Search Unit, Transitional Housing Demo Project, and at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (1995 – 2001) including Emergency Shelter Grants and Continuum of Care Housing and Homeless Programs.

 I have hundreds of good memories of my years working with dedicated individuals within and outside state government, and organizations like Homes for Families and the Mass Coalition for the Homeless on solutions to family homelessness and supporting the family shelter network that provides safe and supportive housing and services to families in need. Here are a few of my random thoughts:

At different points in time, working inside the bureaucracy can prove difficult, sometimes just bizarre. I remember being deposed by Barbara Sard at the old GBLS offices for a landmark lawsuit when the building fire alarm went off, thankfully ending the deposition before I said too little or too much.

I believe the times when government agencies and the contracted providers (whether shelter or housing search or prevention) act respectfully as a team and not as adversaries, great things can be accomplished. This collaboration keeps the work focused on the important goals, not the time consuming and energy draining details some bureaucrats focus on. Outside forces like negative press, administration changes, or a budget crisis can stifle creativity and really challenges us to keep working productively. Does anyone remember Finders Fees and Holding Fees? Despite negative press stories, these ideas were managed with integrity and attained measurable results.

When the number of homeless families was approaching an all time high in 1985 of maybe 500, we purchased 250 “707” (now MRVP) housing subsidies and almost overnight hired staff to issue them. Family shelter and search staff drove the families to the briefing at the old METHAP, and then placed these homeless families into permanent affordable housing, sometimes over the weekend. As the “707” line item account grew, but still significantly less than what is spent today probably on shelter alone, it came under scrutiny. Years later in a negative report on 707, my comment that 707 was successful because hundreds of families who were homeless were homeless no longer nor would they be in the future, was unfortunately in the minority.

There is also something to be said for youth and the energy and excitement that comes with the sense of mission and urgency. Whether it was staffing the hotline on Christmas Eve and calling a family shelter ready to accept a family, or organizing a toy drive and then delivering toys to the motels and shelters, or assisting at the Milner Hotel the morning after the fire (thankfully no families were hurt), young dedicated staff are a valuable asset. They also work long hours at less than desirable pay! I once had a boss in those days who told me to do something I cared about, have fun doing it and take care of those who work with and for you.

Thankfully, youth and energy turn into wisdom. I personally consider myself wiser now having been single with no children when this whole effort began. Persons of wisdom and compassion are real gifts to us all. This is a shout out to those dedicated family shelter directors and staff working away for 20, 25 or 30 years! I know many of you like Sr. Margaret Leonard as friends, and you should all be at the top the event’s Honor Role.

Although I now feel that Massachusetts is not the leader in the field it was 30 years ago, there is more expertise to support bigger picture goals. The Center for Social Policy led by the wise and energetic Donna Friedman along with congregate and scattered site family shelters are focused on housing production, education and real employment as integral parts of defeating homelessness.

As a parting word of encouragement, when  DHCD was EOCD, and EOHHS was EOHS, and DTA was DPW, DPW was symbolized as “Your” Dept of Public Welfare” by stick figures with their arms raised, not in surrender, but in success. (Much like the police officer after Big Papi’s recent grand slam.) Please keep this symbol in mind as the focus for our work ahead. My thanks to all who have contributed to help improve families’ lives the last 30 years!

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Ed Chase

Community Services

MassHousing

There are many people who are a part of this history, and there is a range of experiences that we can learn from.  We are collecting and sharing reflections to complement the event and increase our own understanding of the journey the system has taken. Please consider sharing your own observations and thoughts and/or sharing your reactions in the comment section below .  

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