Notes on panhandling and the housing study

Tomorrow night’s City Council meeting has a packed agenda.

The first item on the agenda is the Housing Market Study, which says the following on its very first page:

In the intervening years significant economic instability and regional socioeconomic changes have impacted Worcester housing market The City has worked to keep pace with these changes through such strategic efforts as the SAVE Our Neighborhoods Plan and the Three Year Plan to End Homelessness.

It’s good that the study remembers the we had a Three Year Plan to End Homelessness, because that plan is not mentioned at all in the proposed “aggressive” panhandling ordinance.

To recap, these were the goals of the Three Year Plan to End Homelessness:

Objective 1.1.1 – Develop 60 units of permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless using the Housing First model.

Objective 1.1.2 – Develop 90 units of permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless using the Home and Healthy for Good program.

Objective 1.1.3 – Develop 90 units of permanent supportive housing for chronically and near-chronically homeless individuals using a more intensive service model through CHAIN initiative.

Objective 1.1.4 – Develop 30 units of permanent supportive housing for families with a disabled parent using the Housing First model.

Objective 1.1.5 – Develop 30 units of units of permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals using the Housing First model.

Objective 1.1.6 – Develop 300 units of single person housing with services to be used as an alternative to shelter for homeless individuals.

Objective 1.1.7 – Increase state MRVP rental subsidies for Worcester homeless families by 150.

Objective 1.2 – Eliminate homeless shelters within 3 and convert to Housing First model.

Objective 1.3 – Close the PIP Shelter within 3 years.

Objective 1.4 – Develop assessment and triage services for families.

Objective 1.5 – Develop an Assessment and Triage Service for Homeless Individuals that includes Aggressive Outreach and Case Management Components.

Objective 2.1.1 – Increase availability of flexible funds to prevent homelessness through expansion of RAFT Program and Emergency Shelter Grants

Objective 2.1.2 – Expand case management resources for prevention of homelessness among families by two FTE staff.

Objective 2.2 – Increase Educational Efforts to Develop an Early Warning System to Target those At risk of Homelessness.

Objective 3.1 – Target the chronically homeless.

Objective 3.2.1 – Improve admissions discharge practices in existing housing programs to increase movement in and out of system.

Objective 3.2.2 – Convert existing housing programs to Housing First where feasible.

Objective 3.3.1 – Develop 300 job opportunities for homeless individuals and families.

Objective 3.3.2 – Provide child care and after school programming for all homeless families.

Objective 3.3.3 – Provide 50 subsidized bus passes for homeless families.

Objective 4.1 – Help coordinate and monitor the performance of Worcester housing and service programs for the homeless.

Objective 4.2 – Develop a City Commission on Homelessness.

Objective 5.1 – Support legislation by the Commonwealth that reimburses Cities for the loss of taxable income from property converted to use by nonprofits and penalizes communities that do not accept their fair share of nonprofit programs.

Objective 5.2 – Involve businesses and colleges in siting programs and developing new housing for the homeless.

As the Common project has shown, Worcester is very good at putting together plans, not so good at following them, and — after a couple of years — pretty lousy at even remembering they existed at all.

Do we really need an aggressive panhandling plan, or should we instead be asking where the additional 300 units of SRO are, or where one can contact the Commission on Homelessness, or where the job opportunities and childcare are for homeless families?

The language of our ordinance is somewhat similar to the language of Springfield’s aggressive panhandling ordinance.

So — how well is Springfield’s ordinance working?

I was able to piece together arrest records from the period from 12/09/2011 – 10/26/2012, except for the days between 4/20/2012 – 05/17/2012.  So, we have approximately nine months’ worth of arrest data.

There were 31 arrests for panhandling in Springfield for those nine months.  Seventeen people total were arrested: 10 were arrested one time, 2 were arrested two times, 3 were arrested three times, and 2 were arrested four times.

This seems somewhat similar to the numbers Worcester has (the memo preceding the ordinance says there are 38 panhandlers, of whom 17 panhandle on a regular basis).

According to Captain Daniel Spaulding of the Springfield police, “panhandling at intersections and in other areas of the city appears to be on the rise and that police are cracking down.”  [quote from an article, not directly from Spaulding]

We say that we want to “reduce the incidence of panhandling” but it’s unclear whether an “aggressive panhandling” ordinance would do that.

The memo states that “Twenty (20) individuals have a history of mental health issues and/or are currently working with mental health providers.  Approximately 75% have substance abuse problems based on case worker observations and/or information provided directly by the clients.”

Nowhere does the memo explain how arresting people with mental health and/or substance abuse issues will help reduce the incidence of panhandling — certainly it has not done so in Springfield.

The housing study itself deserves a fuller examination, one that I would not be able to write.

A few points of interest:

“A city-wide comparison of incomes and housing costs indicates that nearly half of Worcester households pay more than 30% of incomes for housing costs.” [page 7 of the pdf]

“Since 2000, sale prices of single-family homes in Worcester averaged $220,600, which would be affordable to households with incomes between $52,000 and $69,000.” [page 101 of the pdf]

“For instance, a home valued at $100,000 was considered ‘affordable’ under these assumptions for a household with incomes in the $23,600 to $31,000 range depending on the down payment and interest rate.” [page 100 of the pdf]

It’s unclear to me what kind of down payment someone could put together with an income of $23,600, and how exactly it is affordable to have a house that’s nearly five times your annual salary.

There’s forecasting of housing demand in Worcester for the next five years (from page 110 of the pdf):

“Nearly all the net increases in owner households over the next five years could afford homes in the $300,000 or higher range. … Conversely, 97% of the loss in renter households would be in the low income brackets.”

It’s unclear to me where all the rich people are coming from, and where all the poor people are going.  But the “rich” people probably wouldn’t be that “rich” at all — it’s just the definition of affordability that has no basis in reality.

Sources for Springfield arrest figures:

Arrest Status Report 12/09/2011 through 02/09/2012 – There were 11 panhandling arrests.  Of those, 3 were combined with prostitution arrests.  Four of the 11 arrests were for one individual; so much for stopping recidivism!

Arrest Status Report 2/09/2012 through 04/20/2012 – There were 7 panhandling arrests.  One person was arrested twice.

Arrest Status Report 5/17/2012 through 08/30/2012 – There were 8 panhandling arrests.  Two people were arrested twice.  (So, six people were arrested for panhandling in this time.)

Arrest Status Report 08/26/2012 through 10/26/2012 – There were five panhandling arrests.  One person was arrested twice; all of those arrested have previously been arrested for panhandling.

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