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Director, City of Boston Emergency Shelter Commission
“They began taking a ‘housing first’ approach with seniors
Jim first came in contact with the Elders Living at Home Program while working on the Pine Street Inn Outreach Van in the late 1980’s. He was working with a homeless man who was living in an ATM kiosk near the old Boston Garden. “Bobby was a cantankerous, independent old gent,” Jim explains, “who wanted nothing to do with the shelters.” When Bobby finally did come in, it wasn’t exactly by choice. He contracted TB and had to spend six months at the Shattuck Hospital. As Bobby neared the end of his treatment, Jim and the others on the Outreach Van couldn’t bear to see him go back to the street.
Two of the OVan staff had previously worked with Eileen O’Brien at Little Brothers, and they asked her to consider Bobby for her new housing program. “Eileen agreed,” Jim remembers, “although I am not sure that the higher ups were pleased at the time.”
Bobby reluctantly agreed to give ELAHP a try and moved into one of their temporary apartments. After several months, he got permanent housing through the Boston Housing Authority. After this experience, Jim referred more of the older folks from the street to ELAHP. “I learned several important lessons from that early work with ELAHP,” he says. “I learned to look for a spark of resistance, resilience or independence from clients in shelters and on the streets. Agencies that are willing to house frail elders don’t want to place feisty elders; but clients like Bobby tend to fare better than those who sink underneath their homelessness and take whatever is offered to them. The difficult and demanding ones are also more determined that their story wasn’t going to end on the sidewalk or in shelter. It’s worth giving them a shot.”
He goes on to say, “I learned that giving clients what they need inevitably transforms program models and designs. That client-centered decision by Eileen, her staff and board really opened doors for homeless men and women who would not have had much chance of finding housing in the 1990’s. This transformed the program and enlivened partnerships with shelters and outreach providers. It also had a ripple effect with other programs serving seniors. They began taking a ‘housing first’ approach with seniors before anyone had coined the term.”
Drawing on his experiences with ELAHP, Jim oversaw the Emergency Shelter Commission’s formation of a collaborative of outreach, elder-serving and housing agencies into what the Commission called the Elder Street Homeless Initiative. This partnership housed 85% of the city’s elderly homeless men and women who had been living on the streets. “I know I speak for everyone who participated in the Elder Street Homeless Initiative,” Jim says, “when I say that we are grateful to ELAHP for their path breaking work with this important homeless subpopulation. And given the demographics of baby boomers reaching age 65, many without much in the way of family or financial support, we need to keep these partnerships ready for another round.”