When the region struggles through dangerously low temperatures, as it did recently, it is hard to imagine not be able to go home, close the door, crank up the heat and be safe from the world.
But hundreds of homeless people in the Merrimack Valley, many of them in Haverhill, face that brutal reality every day, sometimes struggling against a bone-chilling 10 degrees outside or 92 in the shade.
A homeless census taken early in 2017 found more than 17,500 homeless people in Massachusetts, with upward of 6,000 of them in Greater Boston.
North of the border, the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness released a report this month that found rising rents and fewer vacancies were fueling a rise in reported homelessness over the past year.
The coalition’s report found about 1,450 individuals experiencing homelessness in the Granite State in 2017, with the number of homeless families and students increasing by 26 and 6 percent, respectively, from the 2016 count. The only bright side was that the numbers were down from 2015, although counting this often-transient population is not a precise science.
There’s no one reason someone becomes homeless, and solving the problem of homelessness is a long process with no single solution.
In Haverhill, the Emmaus organization is doing its best to provide temporary shelter to homeless families and individuals. Emmaus operates several buildings that have apartments for homeless families and individuals, as well as Mitch's Place — an overnight shelter that gets homeless people off the street at night.
In July, officials, police and residents of Salem, Mass., met to try to understand a spike in calls to police that were tied to homeless people. The meeting was in response to a more than 200 percent increase in calls. At the time, a survey of about two dozen homeless men and women by Lifebridge, which runs a homeless shelter, and Salem State University’s School of Social Work found many reasons they were homeless and a variety of ways people found to survive, including drug dealing or engaging in prostitution.
Lifebridge Executive Director Jason Etheridge said his organization was helping about 100 people each year find suitable housing and get their feet on the ground. But the solutions don’t work for everyone, including some people who are chronically homeless.
In Greater Newburyport, a homeless count this year identified 467 people, with more than 300 of them children. The Justice Action Ministry and the anti-poverty group Pennies for Poverty are hosting a discussion in early January about the problem of, and possible solutions to, homelessness in this region. The discussion – “No Place to Go When It’s Cold: Finding Solutions for Homeless in Our Community” – is especially timely during this season when living outside can be fatal.
Massachusetts is the only state to guarantee shelter to homeless families, and the Baker administration is committed to getting them out of motels and into permanent housing, which is an endless challenge. On any given day in the Bay State, 60 percent of the 13,000 people experiencing family homelessness are children, according to a Boston Foundation study.
When the report was issued, foundation President Paul S. Grogan wrote, “While most of this report focuses on numbers and percentages, it is impossible to read it without thinking about the people behind the statistics: the families, especially the children, whose heartbreaking struggles with homelessness are influencing virtually everything about their lives and their futures.”
Steadily rising housing prices are major contributors to homelessness in both states. A recent report that recommends creation of more affordable housing outside the Boston area could be a partial solution to this problem in Massachusetts, but that’s a long-term plan that needs buy-in and funding from public and private sources to succeed.
The community meeting in Salem earlier this year, and the public discussion in Newburyport on Jan. 10, are important opportunities to keep the issue of homelessness in the public consciousness and maybe find solutions to chip away at this chronic problem.