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Lodge: A plan to end homelessness
By Richard K. Lodge/ News Editor
Friday, June 16, 2006

Bold? Optimistic? Visionary? Impossible?
    Any number of words could be applied to the two-year plan to create more affordable housing -- linked to support services -- and close area homeless shelters detailed by SMOC Executive Director Jim Cuddy at a meeting of community leaders and social service providers Wednesday.
    Cuddy first proposed closing the Irving Street Common Ground shelter in an op-ed column in The Daily News in January, just weeks after a woman was found burned to death in a storage bin where she had been living just blocks from the shelter in downtown Framingham.
    The woman was described as having mental illness and problems with substance abuse and had resisted efforts to help her.
    She would have been an extreme case. Just 7 percent of the people at the Common Ground shelter stay for more than 90 days, SMOC officials said at the meeting. Forty-nine percent stay at the shelter for 10 days or fewer, usually as a temporary, emergency housing source.
    There was a surge in the number of homeless adults in the early 1980s when many public mental health hospitals were closed. Large swaths of affordable housing were eliminated and the population of people on the street competing for low-wage jobs grew beyond what the market could handle.
    SMOC and other agencies responded by opening shelters for the homeless, something Cuddy said this week was well-intentioned but, in the long run, only served to enable many chronically homeless people instead of giving them the support and tools to help themselves.
    In his plan laid out this week, Cuddy proposed closing shelters in Framingham, Marlborough and Ashland within two years. But to do so will require creation of new single-room occupancy housing with wraparound services, including mental health and substance abuse programs, job counseling and establishment of "Ready, Willing and Able," a "non-exploitative day labor" program, as he described it.
    Cuddy appealed to business leaders, local and state government officials and numerous state agencies to step in to help make this happen.
    The plan is simple on paper. People need housing they can afford, they need round-the-clock support services -- mental health, domestic abuse or substance abuse counseling -- and they need job training and counseling. SMOC's plan would set up a day-labor business so formerly homeless people can earn money, which goes a long way toward bolstering self worth, and they can pay at least a portion of their rent, which is required by SMOC.
    The small number of chronically homeless people, many of whom are averse to treatment, need very focused attention to get them on the right track.
    Who benefits if this works? From all appearances, we all do. The people using homeless shelters now would benefit by having good places to live and the support that could help them rebuild their lives. Our hospital emergency rooms and health care system would benefit because fewer people would use the ER as their last resort. Public safety would improve as the burden on police and EMT services would be reduced.
    As a society, we'd be better off all around.
    "We're really talking about public health and the common good for the community and the individual," Cuddy said.
    People who rely on homeless shelters have hit the end of the line, in most cases. They are abused wives and children, with no money and no job, fleeing from their husbands; they are drug or alcohol abusers who don't have the will or means to break the cycle on their own; they are people with mental illness who need a whole network of help; and they are unemployed or under-employed people who have hit the wall financially and can't afford to keep a roof over their heads.
    Some MetroWest residents may see the wet shelter in Framingham as Jim Cuddy's albatross. But Cuddy and his staff, to their credit, have no interest in running warehouses or dormitories for people who have no resources and no hope.
    Near the end of the presentation held at the United Church of Christ Conference Center in Framingham, Cuddy flashed a slide on the screen that showed a neat row of cots, a photo taken at the Common Ground shelter downtown.
    "Our goal is to turn the lights out in that dormitory and never turn them on again," he said. Then to turn them out in the Marlborough shelter and finally, at Shadows and Meadows shelter in Ashland.
    It's a noble and attainable goal, but people and businesses throughout MetroWest need to be on board to help make it happen.
    Richard Lodge is editor of The Daily News and writes a column published Fridays. His e-mail is rlodge@cnc.com.

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