Most cities and towns that are in proximity of Lawrence, including those that share municipal borders, have eradicated homelessness. This does not mean that they have discovered the keys to resolving a chronic societal ill. Rather, they have intentionally created conditions that make it impossible for an unsheltered individual to stay within their borders except for only brief and mostly daylight stints. These cities and towns have learned the art of exporting their homelessness problem.
There are three basic categories of homeless people. Sheltered, meaning having a temporary reservation to a cot in an emergency shelter for overnight stays only; unsheltered, meaning living in outdoor settings mostly; and transitionally sheltered, referring to a wide range of temporary housing arrangements. The principal driver of homelessness in Merrimack Valley mirrors that of most of the country: lack of affordable housing. When you add to this condition subsets of homelessness drivers such as addiction, drug abuse, mental illness, and various forms of domestic isolation, homelessness becomes a sprawling and visible problem.
Lawrence is a center for exceptional social services. There is a constellation of facilities, ranging from emergency shelters to sober houses, halfway houses, clinics, and a hospital. There are government and private agencies as well, including DCF, but there are also a wide variety of publicly subsidized housing projects and transitional housing units owned and managed by nonprofit organizations. Add to this a strong network of nonprofit agencies and faith-based organizations that provide basic necessities such as food and clothing, and you create an environment that can help someone who is homeless gain the most basic underpinnings to initiate a pathway to housing stability. In Lawrence, an unsheltered homeless person can get three meals a day, a shower once or twice a week, and an opportunity to be checked by a counselor, doctor, or other medical professional.
The surrounding communities that wish to control the public safety, economic consequences, and image issues associated with homelessness do so very effectively by enacting ordinances, zoning, and police policies that make it impossible to be homeless within their borders. The most notable examples are:
- No encampments permitted
- No loitering in public places
- No sleeping in public places
- Aggressively discouraging or restricting panhandling.
Additional measures are enacting dusk-to-dawn restrictions in public parks, closing or restricting hours for public bathrooms, and eliminating public fountains. Some cities and towns have also enabled restaurants and gas stations to restrict the use of bathrooms to patrons only. Many municipalities have not complied with minimum state-mandated affordable housing unit counts. Still others do not allow occupying public spaces such as libraries without being an active user of the facilities.
So if I were an unsheltered homeless person, whose possessions were defined by what I could carry, I would eventually leave your city or town if I couldn’t get anything to eat, could not lay my head down anywhere, and if I soiled my pants once or twice. Eventually, I would migrate to a city or town that would allow me to survive.
I know a homeless person who was told by a Beverly police officer to “go to Lynn.” In fact, he was even offered a one-way ride there. I met a couple from Saugus who lived under the Casey Bridge last summer. I asked them, “Why are you here?” They told me, “We are users but are trying to get back on our feet. The cops in Saugus wouldn’t let us stay camped out in the woods.”
At the height of the population boom under the Casey Bridge where there were upward of 60 people living under four arches, you couldn’t find a half-dozen people who were residents of Lawrence. In fact, that sprawling community, before it was dispelled last fall, had “residents” from all six New England states.
Lawrence is criticized by some for being a dirty, lawless city. I disagree. Lawrence has a homelessness problem because it is a compassionate city and most surrounding cities and towns have used Lawrence’s open status to their advantage.
State lawmakers should increase efforts to lead their communities in participating in regional approaches to address the issue of housing instability and homelessness. In 2015 Gov. Baker and Lt. Gov. Polito convened the ICHH: Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness. Working through various committees and subcommittees numerous, viable action plans are in motion to help solve homelessness in all subpopulations such as veterans, elderly, youth, and those suffering from addiction. Without these actions there would be a tendency for communities to actively implement NIMBY versions of public policy.
There aren’t enough beds, shelters, programs, and affordable housing units in our state. But when you have a concentration of these in a few cities throughout the Commonwealth, plus a tolerant public policy structure such as you have in Lawrence, those cities bear the brunt of a massive social ill. In the meantime, the vast majority of communities will quietly maintain public policies that will keep the problem conveniently out of their proverbial backyards.
Joe D’Amore is an advocate and founder of Merrimack Valley Hope Mission. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org