Mayoral Candidates Tackle Issue of Homelessness in Recent Forum

The Boston Coalition for Homeless Individuals, which consists of Boston Health Care for the Homeless, Pine Street Inn, Project Place, and St. Francis House, hosted a virtual mayoral forum on July 28.

Called “Pathways Out of Homelessness,” the forum was moderated by Boston Globe columnist Marcela Garcia and attended by candidates John Barros, Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, Kim Janey, and Michelle Wu.

The forum focused on questions relating to issues surrounding homelessness in Boston, such as creating housing and services for individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

Candidates were first asked how they would increase “deeply affordable housing” in the city and “what goal” they could commit to for building new units.

Essaibi George said that the process for searching for housing needs to be made “less burdensome,” and people need better access to the system.

“As we work to build and streamline the process…we have to make sure there are entry points along the continuum of housing search for our city’s residents who are experiencing housing instability and homelessness,” she said. She added that she has worked on this as a city councilor, and would continue if elected mayor.

Acting Mayor Janey said that “we have done a lot already in my tenure over the last four months under my administration,” including investing $50 million in the Rental Relief Fund. “We need to get into the thousands of units. We have to recognize that it’s not just individuals, that it’s families that need supportive housing,” she said.

Wu said that “we have fallen far short in terms of growing our city in a way that matches the accessibility at the income levels of what’s needed as well as the type of occupancy that’s needed.” She said that city resources should be used, and added that she has “committed to…analyzing every single city owned building” for opportunities to create supportive housing within her first 100 days as mayor, should she be elected.

“I’ve always led from an intersectional lens,” Campbell said. Campbell began the Vacant Lot Initiative, which she said she would remain committed to if elected. She said she would activate 100 city owned lots within her first 100 days as mayor. “Workforce development also has to be a part of this conversation,” she added.

Barros said he is the “only candidate in this race that has actually built housing; built deeply affordable housing; built transitional supportive housing for homeless” in partnership with organizations.

 “I’m proud to have been part of the Walsh administration that has housed over 15,000 unhoused people since 2014, including 1000 chronically homeless people and 1300 homeless veterans,” he said. “As mayor, I would promise to double that within the first four years.” Barros also said that services for mental health, safety, and food are also important.

 Some questions were aimed at particular candidates, such as one for Janey and Campbell asking how they would “invest in workforce development training and incentivize employers to see individuals experiencing homelessness and returning to the community from incarceration as a solution to the workforce needs that employers are currently facing.”

Janey said that she would introduce a Chief of Labor and Workforce Development, which would be a cabinet-level position. She said that working to employ those with CORI, as well as working with labor unions and the Suffolk County Sheriff are things she would tackle.

“If we want people to be successful, we’ve got to set them up for success,” she said. She added that partnering with and expanding nonprofits who already do this type of work is a goal of hers, to help people with interview and resume skills.

“Workforce development in general is near and dear to me,” Campbell said. She said that employees at City Hall need to be diversified, and providing jobs to those with CORI and disabilities at the city level. She also said that the “digital divide” needs to be closed.

In a question directed at Wu, Barros, and Essaibi George, candidates were asked if they would support supervised consumption facilities in the city.

“We need to take every possible step to save lives,” Wu said. “The data is clear.” She said that medical experts have said that these sites are life saving for many. “This is a moment where we have to follow the recommendations of our providers and experts in this area,” she said, and “work hand-in-hand with community partners and stakeholders…not just at Mass and Cass, but across all neighborhoods and regionally.”

Barros said he supports supervised consumption sites “that are planned and part of a continuum of care” and “created in tandem with additional wraparound services.” He said that to implement these sites in Boston, a “thorough community process” would have to be held, and the sites would have to be able to be accessed equitably.

Essaibi Geroge said she has visited safe consumption sites in Toronto and Vancouver. She said that it is “important to note” that these sites are “illegal by federal standards and federal law” in the United States, so “…licensed healthcare providers will not be able to participate in their operation.”

She said that for these sites to “work effectively and appropriately,” there would have to be many sites “located in close proximity to one another,” as people will not travel very far to go to one. “That investment will cost millions of dollars,” she said, adding that she would rather spend the money on “long-term recovery services.”

There was also a “lightning round” question, where candidates were asked whether or not they support the development of permanent supportive housing in the Shattuck Campus site, an issue that has caused a divide in the communities surrounding Franklin Park where the hospital site is located. While many residents support the state’s plan to build supportive housing and services on the site, others feel that the land should be returned to Franklin Park and these services should be sited elsewhere, such as at the Arborway Yard in Jamaica Plain.

Barros said yes, he supports the construction of supportive housing on the site. Wu said “we need to have a full conversation with the state in terms of all the parcels.” She said that she does “support and will commit to urgently increasing the number of supportive housing units on city owned land and public land,” but there needs to be “one conversation about all the parcels at play here.”

Janey said “I support more supportive housing, indeed,” adding that she also calls for “a much more comprehensive approach in terms of how we get at that number.”

Essaibi George said she does support supportive housing on that site, but she said that at the same time, the city, stakeholders, and residents “can continue to have those conversations around other parcels of land.”

Campbell said she also supports the housing on that site. “I have received a lot of correspondence on this issue,” she said, adding that many residents have expressed support for the housing and services as a way to tackle the opioid crisis in the city. She aded that there are also “ways in which to have a conversation about the other concerns related to that parcel.”

All candidates were asked how they would “respond to NIMBYism and community pushback, and actually get permanent supportive housing built.”

Essaibi George said that it’s imperative to ensure that when supportive housing is built, that it truly is permanent supportive housing. “We need to work in direct partnership with our nonprofit organizations,” she said, and the City has to be a leader.

“We have the power to create a streamlined process and making sure we’re pushing that through,” Wi said. She called for zoning code updates, as “…we are in a broken system where every single new development has to go through unknown, unspecified numbers of meetings and conversations and negotiations because there is no clear sense of what the rules are.” She also said she would “transform and empower the Boston Housing Authority.”

Campbell said that “closing the gaps in terms of economic opportunities, safe neighborhoods, schools, health disparities,” as well as “dealing with and addressing the public safety crisis” at Mass and Cass” are priorities of hers. She said that everyone has a responsibility, including city employees, the business community, health professionals, and those who work in supportive housing, to be a leader on this front.

“…segregating affordable housing or concentrating poverty into a few areas in the city” is not fair, Barros said. He said conversations need to be had about “equity and access” and “equity in resources.” He said he has been having these conversations in the community about where supportive housing should be built, and this process should be done in a way that promotes equity citywide.

Janey said that aside from the $50 million invested in the Rental Relief Fund, her administration is also working to prevent the displacement of people from their homes. She said that this “doesn’t even include the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal support. That money is going to a number of things, including how we’re dealing with public housing in our city.” She said many existing units are “in desperate need of upgrades,” and there is a need for additional units of supportive housing as well.

Candidates were also asked about “innovative ideas” they have for tackling homelessness in the city, as well as increasing access to water, bathrooms, and places to do laundry for those experiencing homelessness.

The full recording of the forum can be found on Pine Street Inn’s YouTube channel or on its website.

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