Getting Ahead of Boston's Homelessness Crisis: Starlight’s Collaborative Approach
by Rev. Cynthia Hymes Bell, MPH
The face of homelessness on Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston has changed. When we think about homelessness in America, we tend to think of single adult males living in a shelter, in a car or under a bridge. They may have a mental illness, or drug or alcohol addiction.
However, increasingly the single adult male is no longer the dominant face of homelessness in the Melnea Cass Boulevard area of the city. While traveling through this neighborhood on my way to work or to the airport, I have observed that the faces of the individuals congregating on the Boulevard are now younger, Caucasian and increasingly women.
As the Director of Starlight Ministries, I am constantly asking, what can be done—what is being done—by Christian leaders in this city to eradicate the problem? What is the Church’s response to this crisis?
THE CURRENT CRISIS
Just in the past three years, the face of homelessness on Melnea Cass Boulevard has changed completely. The Woods-Mullen women's shelter on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston’s South End serves women ages 18 years or older. Their 200 beds have not met the need of an increasing number of young women sleeping on the Boulevard and the streets of the city.
Street involvement is becoming more prevalent and severe for both women and men. On any given night in the city of Boston, the first-come-first-served overnight shelter beds are usually full or beyond capacity, leaving those who cannot be served sleeping on the streets in bags, in makeshift houses or on corners of the city’s streets.
In January 2016, the annual City of Boston Homeless Census counted 7,549 men, women and children sleeping in shelters, treatment centers and on the streets of Boston. What is even more startling is a recent report published by the Boston Foundation which highlights that the number of individuals in families who are homeless in Massachusetts has more than doubled in nine years to 13,000, an increase that’s among the highest in the nation.
Historically, homelessness has meant individuals living on the streets. But families have become the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, comprising nearly 40 percent nationally, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. Children make up 60% of those who are experiencing family homelessness on any given day in Massachusetts.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Chronic homelessness is a persistent and pervasive problem in the metro-Boston area, where limited shelter options, unemployment, and excessive rents are forcing more people onto the streets. The housing crisis undermines the life and dignity of so many of our sisters and brothers who lack stable housing, employment and a permanent place to live.
Homelessness is a multifaceted problem—there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I recognize that the current crisis in the city of Boston poses a particular challenge for church leaders who do not have the capacity, or do not feel well-equipped, to deal with the problem.
The “no loitering” signs that recently have been posted by the city of Boston along the fences on Melnea Cass Boulevard certainly are not the answer. These are our sisters and brothers—nameless faces of women and children and men sleeping on the city streets, outcast, turned down, closed out and invisible.
What is the church’s response to this crisis? At Starlight, we believe Christian leaders best address the homelessness crisis by building healthy community networks that relationally engage and support people affected by homelessness.
STARLIGHT’S COLLABORATIVE MODEL
This past year, we at EGC’s 27-year-old Starlight Ministries have honed our approach. We began a re-learning process, identifying 30 prospective church partners that currently have outreach ministries to people who are poor or marginalized.
We were disheartened to learn, after the first 12 meetings and interviews, that many of these ministries are using a model of service—the food pantry model—that is not effectively serving people dealing with homelessness. People without housing need ready-to-eat foods that do not require cooking or preparation.
We believe that better cooperation amongst churches and community organizations could better serve the current need. We are now developing church and community partnerships aimed at implementing holistic approaches, sharing resources, and coordinating services.
In a partnership, each church community can find their unique contribution, and no one church is overburdened. Partners will jointly address the physical, spiritual, and practical needs of people in their neighborhood to foster healthy community.
Our vision is that every church and Christian group in Greater Boston who wants to engage people affected by homelessness will be equipped to do so wisely. In turn, people affected by homelessness will have more opportunities to participate in “healthy, effective communities” that can support them in transitioning out of homelessness and achieving their full potential.
Rev. Cynthia Hymes Bell
Rev. Bell leads Starlight Ministries in its mission to build the capacity of Boston’s churches and leaders to create life-changing relationships with people affected by homelessness. She has a degree in mental health from Tufts University, a Master of Public Health from Yale, and a Master of Divinity from Harvard. From 2002 to 2008, Cynthia traveled to South Sudan with “My Sister’s Keeper,” where she participated in the redemption of more than 1,200 slaves. She is a licensed and ordained minister and serves on the ministry team of Morning Star Baptist Church in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston.