EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 4, 2013

Homeless numbers 'stunning'

Count finds great need for affordable housing locally

By Sonya Vartabedian
Staff Writer

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Organizers of last week’s survey of the homeless population in Greater Newburyport say the results make one thing crystal clear — there is a real need for more affordable housing in the region.

Even with incomplete numbers, the figures on the area’s homeless population are staggering, said John Feehan, executive director of the YWCA Greater Newburyport.

“It comes down to that old (housing rights champion) Mitch Snyder mantra: housing, housing, housing,” Feehan said. “We need more affordable housing that people can afford to live in.”

According to preliminary numbers, the survey identified 76 individuals, including five children, in Newburyport, Amesbury, Salisbury, Newbury and Rowley who are considered homeless. Of those, the majority were found in Salisbury, where 45 homeless people are currently living. There were 17 homeless people recorded in Amesbury and another 12 in Newburyport. The YWCA is still awaiting figures from two agencies to complete its count.

Feehan said the numbers are even more concerning in the schools. While one school district has yet to submit its reports, the survey has already identified more than 260 students who would be considered homeless. Of those, only four are living in shelters. The vast majority — 250 — are in hotels or doubled up with another family in temporary housing, Feehan said. Six are unattended, he said.

“It’s the doubled-up number that’s so stunning to us,” Feehan said. “These numbers are much higher than we thought they would be.”

Homelessness is defined as the lack of permanent dwelling meant for human habitation. Under that definition, multiple families living in an apartment legally intended for one family are considered homeless because the additional families are at risk of eviction if discovered. That apartment cannot be considered permanent housing for the doubled-up family, Feehan said. The same holds for individuals living in hotels, he said. While they have shelter, that housing is not considered permanent.

Feehan believes if adequate affordable housing existed in the region, it would alleviate some of the occurrence of families doubling up or seeking shelter in hotels.

But based on an earlier study completed by the city’s Affordable Housing Trust, a substantial amount of housing would have to be created to satisfy the existing need.

And that can’t happen overnight. Feehan said it has taken the YWCA six years to get construction of five new affordable housing units off the ground.

“There’s a huge backlog at the state getting it through the system to get it funded,” he said.

Feehan called last week’s homeless survey — the first true count to be done in Greater Newburyport in years — a learning process. He said organizers didn’t initially think to contact departments of veterans services in the area communities. But when they did, they found individuals in that population who fall under the parameters of being homeless. In Amesbury, for example, there are five individuals who can be considered homeless; two are in transitional housing and three are “couch surfing.” In Newburyport, two individuals served by veterans services are “couch surfing.”

“We identified a number of people through the process,” Feehan said. “It’s not just guys on the street.”

The aim of the count was twofold: to raise public awareness and to provide data about homelessness that can be used when applying for public funding to address the issue locally.

Feehan said the YWCA’s Affordable Housing Committee, which meets monthly, has been effective the past couple years in bringing attention to the needs and gaining public support for efforts to expand the housing stock. Now the numbers should help put Greater Newburyport in a better position to lobby for state and federal money to undertake projects.

“There’s no easy answer,” Feehan said. “There are families that are struggling, individuals that are struggling in our area.”