A congregate shelter in Massachusetts. Each family is supposed to have a bedroom and share kitchen and other common areas with several other families.

Charting Baker's Course: Confronting The State's Growing Homeless Population

January 12, 2015

To mark Charlie Baker's  first  full week on the job, WGBH News is examining a quartet of potentially vexing challenges facing the new Massachusetts Governor.  Up first, Baker’s plans for dealing with the exploding number of homeless. 

Chauntae Cornett and her 6-year-old daughter Khaliyiah fold pink paper as they sit on the couch in their temporary apartment in Mattapan. They’re trying to make an origami pig, and it’s not going so well. Cornett used to live in Springfield with her fiancée, Khaliyiah’s father, but she says it was an abusive relationship.

“The kind of abuse that I basically dealt with was verbal, it was emotional, it was physical abuse,”  she said. 

It was bad enough that it landed him in jail. When he was released, Cornett didn’t feel safe and left with her daughter for Boston. For years, they bounced from one state-funded temporary home to another.

“Homeless does not necessarily mean the person that’s out there on the street that you see asking for change. Underneath a blanket. Right in the Boston Commons."

Figuring out how to help people like Cornett is a serious challenge to the state’s new governor Charlie Baker.  In his inaugural address last week, he mentioned the issue as being among the state’s toughest challenges.

"They range from having more than 1,500 homeless families assigned to hotels and motels."

And those families are just part of the state’s homelessness problem. Robyn Frost is the executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

“Well, it’s the worst we’ve ever seen. There’s no question about it. As the economy is chugging back into line we still have lots of families and individuals who are living in poverty, who are affected by the housing instability. And so tonight, at least on the family side, we have over 4500 families that are in emergency shelter.”

In the past seven years or so, Massachusetts has seen a surge in homelessness. That’s more than any other state.

On the campaign trail, Baker released a plan for homeless families— which would do a range of things, including providing funding for families to stay with relatives, and intervening before they become homeless. It emphasizes that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

“There is nothing new in any of it," and Frost said that’s not really a bad thing. “I believe that there are points within that plan that we would like to see grow and get better. So, I’m hopeful. You’re both dusting off old ideas but also looking for any new ideas, any new innovations that are available out there in the country.”

Philip Mangano is president of the American Roundtable to Abolish Homelessness, and was the "homelessness czar" under President George W. Bush. He’s known Baker for years, and they’ve recently visited a number of shelters together.

“There’s a track record that you can look at with Charlie Baker and one element of that track record was that there were hundreds of homeless families in welfare hotels when he was the secretary of human services, he committed his administration, that is his secretariat, to not only diminishing that number, but to bring it to zero. And he did that.”

Mangano said over the last decade or so, the state shifted from trying to abolish homelessness, and started just servicing the homeless. He called Baker’s approach data-driven, and he’s optimistic it will work.

But Robyn Frost, of the Coalition for the Homeless, said one thing is missing from the new governor’s plan – the word poverty.

“Unless we’re really looking and drilling down on how we can address people’s poverty, then that also is a missing a queue, and that’s been missing quite a bit in all the administrations.”  

Mangano said it’s a question of the best way to target the state’s efforts and limited money.  

“When you concentrate the resources on what seems intractable, homelessness, and create change there, you create a tipping point, a psychological tipping point and a policy tipping point that if we can do it for them, we can get it done for everybody.”

What Governor Baker and advocates are hoping for is more outcomes like Chauntae Cornett's. She's now in a housing and mentoring program at the Crittenton Women’s Union. And by the end of the month, she and six-year-old Khaliyiah should be moving into permanent Section 8 housing.

“I’m excited, really. I feel as though, like, now I can have my whole life back.”

Cornett just finished her first semester at Bunker Hill Community College. She’s studying human services.

Homes for Families Executive Director Libby Hayes and UMass Boston poverty policy researcher Donna Haig Friedman discussed whether Baker’s plans to get homeless families back on their feet are enough:


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