Brockton hotel being acquired by Father Bill’s and MainSpring.
Last March, the homeless support organization Father Bill’s & MainSpring was hosting 140 people seeking assistance at its Brockton house. During stays, people would sleep wherever they could, even taking to the floors of the dormitories or dining space.
When the pandemic began and social distancing mandates took effect, the operating capacity of the shelter was cut in half. In order to prevent turning people back onto the streets, they sought alternative shelter options.
Organizers put heated tents in Perkins Park, and a South Shore YMCA became a field house. As the pandemic raged on, the need for a permanent solution arose. Brockton’s Rodeway Inn, suffering in its own way from the pandemic, became an opportunity.
The Rodeway, hurting from the same restrictions and a lack of tourism, was quick to cut a deal with Father Bill’s that allowed for them to use their vacancy as shelter space.
“If there are going to be [hotels] that aren’t going to make it, wouldn’t we rather repurpose them rather than have them sitting in our communities vacant?” said John Yazwinski, the President and CEO of Father Bill’s & Mainspring.
After the initial agreement, Father Bill’s realized the possibility of a permanent solution at the Rodeway was an important one to capitalize on. “We were already there, it’s a city we already serve, it’s right by the VA, it’s near public transportation, so there’s amenities nearby for our population,” Yazwinski said.
For projects like this acquisition and conversion, there can be significant challenges, logistically and financially. “One [challenge] is just amassing those opportunities, and then after that, resourcing those opportunities,” said Karen LaFrazia, the President and CEO of St. Francis House in Boston.
Father Bill’s managed to quickly accomplish the difficult task of finding a hotel interested in making a deal, but now faces the challenges of financing the project, as well as legal barriers like zoning laws.
“The Massachusetts zoning laws are very archaic and out of date, once you get outside of the 128 belt you can’t really build a multi-family house without zoning relief,” Yazwinski said.
For this project in particular, Father Bill’s is able to circumvent some of these challenges with the Dover Amendment, a law that allows for certain organizations like educational nonprofits to bypass some zoning restrictions to build the facilities they need to operate.
Financially, Father Bill’s is relying on state-level funding from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and has been met with positive reception in the application process for funding from both local and state legislators.
“For our state application, the mayor gave us a support letter, the state delegation gave us a support letter, and the rewards counselor has been very comfortable with [the acquisition],” Yazwinski said.
The DHCD funding is support provided by FEMA, some of which is emergency COVID funding for sheltering services like Father Bill’s to rent hotel space. In 2020, the reimbursement was only 75%, but recent changes from the Biden administration have turned that to full reimbursement, even retroactively.
“All work eligible under FEMA’s existing COVID-19 policies, including increasing medical capacity, non-congregate sheltering, and emergency feeding distribution will be reimbursed at 100% federal share,” according to a FEMA press release from Feb. 3.
The total financial cost of the project is estimated at around $10 million across both the acquisition and conversion of the hotel’s space. They plan to renovate many of the existing utilities along with adding kitchenettes to each of the 68 rooms to make them fully self-sufficient supportive housing units.
“It’s about [$147,000] and change per unit,” Yazwinski said. “In a sense of affordable housing and as a public project, that’s a really good total cost.”
Their timeline aims to have the acquisition completed within the coming weeks, and once the financial support begins to come in, they will begin the conversion process, hopefully completing by sometime in August or September, carrying out the process in about a year’s time.
“The good thing is, because we’re already there, we have the ability to say to the people there, You have the option if you’d like to stay for this to be your home,” Yazwinski said.
Congregate shelters are unable to provide security like the permanent supportive housing Father Bill’s is setting out to create with the Rodeway.
“It’s a whole different level of stability in someone’s life,” said LaFrazia of St. Francis House. “So you can have a whole different conversation with someone. Like, What’s next for you? Maybe this is where you live forever; maybe this is a jumping off point to something different.”
Among other things, supportive housing can assist a population by providing a permanent address. That can help with employment and other services that could be needed to regain stability, and Father Bill’s also plans to continue providing services like those at their other shelter locations.
“We provide case management, food, medical, [and] we have licensed healthcare clinics in our shelters,” Yazwinski said. “Everyone gets what we call a triage worker that’s assessing them, hooking them up with community resources, helping them move on, if they can.”
As some explain it, congregate shelters like St. Francis House are more common than supportive housing, ultimately because they’re easier to manage, with many being open either specifically during the day like St. Francis, or night shelters like Pine St. Inn.
“[COVID] really exposed just how poor and unhealthy congregate shelter sites are,” said Joe Finn, the President and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (MHSA).
Conditions are difficult to maintain, but the volume of people coming through on a daily basis present a challenge all their own.
“500 people a day coming through that door, and you have to manage that kind of human traffic,” LaFrazia said. “We call [security] community engagement and safety staff…it’s all about managing people, and that’s our largest staff.”
LaFrazia is optimistic about shelters growing into hotel spaces and other vacancies, but feels the government could step in and assist the shelters who would like to expand their spaces.
“If the state could create an inventory of available properties, and broker relationships between the owners and providers and housing developers,” she says, “that could push forward the whole conversion strategy.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.