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Legislators, advocates meet to support Gov. Healey's Affordable Homes Act

Local and state legislators and advocates meet to discuss homeless crisis.
Caitlin Reardon / NEPM
Local and state legislators and advocates meet to discuss homeless crisis.

State and local legislators, mayors and advocates gathered at a Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness event on Friday. The event, held at Holyoke Community College, presented data on the increased number of homeless people in the western Massachusetts community, and gathered support for Gov. Maura Healey’s pending Affordable Homes Act.

This past year, the number of homeless people rose 17% in the four counties, with more than 3,800 people homeless on Jan. 31, reported by the organization through a yearly data collection. Nearly 3,000 of those without a home are located in Hampden County.

“There's just no getting around it. It's really bad. And we've seen these stats a lot and we can almost numb out over them,” Pamela Schwartz, director of the agency, said about the data. “Every month we get on Zoom meetings with different constellations of family, individuals, youth and young adults, and we get pounded with these numbers.”

News of funding for affordable housing could come soon with Healey’s $4.1 billion act if it gets passed by the end of July. The bill was proposed in October, and has the potential to fund 40,000-plus homes for both low income and middle-class households. It also looks to help improve and repair public housing units while working within the state’s climate initiatives.

“It's not always about the money, but when the roof’s leaking, it's about the money. It's about the money to make sure that those units can stay functioning,” Massachusetts Housing Secretary Ed Augustus said at the event. “They should be healthy, they should be safe, and they should be dignified. No less. That's what we owe people in public housing.”

Schwartz proposed some amendments to the bill that would allow less roadblocks for the housing crisis, like sealing eviction records and streamlining supportive housing developments and services. The amendments, the group says, will better align with western Massachusetts’ needs in order to attack the issues.

After community members Jocephus Grant, a Springfield No One Leaves board member, and Neighbor to Neighbor member Felicia Wheeler spoke about their past and current experiences fighting for their homes, Senator Adam Gomez of Hampden County shared his story.

“When I was elected to the city council, I was struggling with homelessness when I first got into elected office. I've never really said that out loud,” he said.

He talked about the existence of poverty outside of communities like Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee, and also raised the issue of the lack of rent control: “There is rural poverty as well. It's real and it's deep. And there is some issues when it comes to racial inequities because I've experienced them myself,” Gomez said.

The data presentation, led by Springfield’s Director of Housing Gerry McCafferty, also pointed to the disproportionate homeless population of people of color; the number of Black homeless people is 5.8 times greater than Black people who are not homeless, and Hispanic people 2.1 times greater, in western Massachusetts.

Holyoke Mayor Josh Garcia, who also spoke, urged the room to get to the source of the homelessness crisis and examine the roles of nonprofits, tax laws, policies and legislation in facing this issue.

“The data is there, but it's still not enough. Money is great. [But] We're throwing it at the problem, and nobody is seriously looking for the solution to the systemic sources of the problem.”

Schwartz said, with the end of the two-year legislative session looming, the time to act is now.

“There is something sustaining, mobilizing, inspiring about coming together, filling a room to capacity with our partners who are doing the work, with our legislators who are passing the bills, with our secretary who is at the helm of the state government,” she said. “Where we're all here together committing to making the change we need.”

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