Christian | Nigerian | Urbanist | Photographer
A while back, I visited Pine Street Inn, a nonprofit organization working to end homelessness in Greater Boston. Paul Sullivan co-founded Pine Street in 1969 to serve 200 men struggling with alcoholism and today the organization serves around 1,600 individuals each day. The organization is currently located in the triangle between Chinatown, the South End, and South Boston.
The focus of my research proposal for Urban Research Methods (UA 703) is adolescent homelessness in Boston and part of the planning process involved interviews of individuals involved in our research topics. Although Pine Street does not focus on homeless youth, it is a highly regarded organization with knowledge and experience applicable to my research. They recently received a Neighborhood Builders Award from Bank of America, are spoken well of in local and national media reporting, and serve approximately 11,000 individuals each year.
I was able to speak with Scotty, the main contact for volunteers at Pine Street, and Captain Mike, one of Pine Street’s case managers. Scotty introduced me to the intake process that new clients go through and pointed out the importance of the “Housing First” model to the team — Pine Street has 800 formerly homeless individuals in permanent housing. In February 2012, in an opinion piece written for Spare Change News, Executive Director Lyndia Downie wrote:
This strategy of targeting the longest-term shelter occupants and creating barrier-free housing has contributed to a six-year, 30 percent decrease in the number of homeless individuals on the streets and in shelters in Boston. There is no question that this innovation has been successful; we at Pine Street are committed to this approach so that we can truly meet our mission of ending homelessness.
Scotty mentioned that the organization’s housing program has grown over the past decade and has a retention rate of over 80 percent. In addition, Pine Street has initiated two social enterprise programs: iCater and Boston HandyWorks. Both provide training opportunities for individuals in transition and generate revenue to ensure more people can benefit from the programs.
Like many charitable organizations, the main challenge the organization faces is obtaining funding. More homeless individuals should have access to the services that Pine Street provides to its clients. Although the organization is supported by the Commonwealth, the funds provided have remained at the same level for some time, which makes expansion and innovation a bit of a challenge. Pine Street has responded with fundraising campaigns like Ending Homelessness: The Campaign for Pine Street Inn.
Captain Mike shed more light on the work that Pine Street does with Boston’s homeless population. Having worked for the organization for more than 30 years, he has witnessed the organization’s evolution from a residential shelter for hardcore alcoholics to a provider of supportive housing, independent skills training, and employment-oriented education.
When I inquired about the challenges that the organization faced, he mentioned the need for more case managers and outreach workers to deal with the increasing number of homeless individuals in the city as a result of the state of the economy. Pine Street also runs outreach programs on-foot in the mornings and by van at night to reach individuals across the city.
The main focus of my research is the relationship between homeless service providers and homeless youth. My driving question is:
“Why do significant numbers of adolescents experience homelessness in the City of Boston when both the government and charitable organizations are heavily invested in solving the problem of youth homelessness?”
I shared a diagram of my approach to the topic a few weeks ago. Using portions of my handy interview protocol I was able to explore a piece of this problem with Captain Mike.
He indicated that case managers deal with numerous cases, and each one of those cases is different. There are cultural differences, age differences, gender and identity issues, mental health issues, and other reasons why clients come through Pine Street’s doors. In response, Captain Mike has developed and honed a strategy for identifying the clients who are ready to do the work necessary to stay on the path out of homelessness.
He makes sure that he makes eye contact with everyone who walks through the doors to get a basic sense of who they are. Then when he meets with new clients, he looks out for clients who follow through on their responsibilities. The baseline test is a request that his new client makes and attends an appointment for a basic checkup with the on-site physician. Captain Mike emphasized that most of the work will be done by the client and their performance on this test demonstrates if they are willing to do what it takes to get housed.
It was evident that Captain Mike takes pride in his work. When I asked about cases that stood out in his memory that he could share (while respecting his clients’ privacy, of course) he mentioned one client that he had known as a child. As an adult, he was able to help this client access Pine Street’s services and eventually supportive housing. He mentioned the pride he sees in clients’ faces when they can finally show their key rings — with the treasured key to a place of their own.
He expressed his belief in Pine Street’s model, and his admiration of the training program in food services (I believe this is linked to iCater)—watching the graduation ceremony in the spring is one of the highlights of his year. He ended our discussion with a tour of the first floor, showing me the free laundry facilities, the rentable lockers, and the shelter beds that have to be allocated by lottery due to high demand.
This visit and my conversations with members of the Pine Street team have made me a fan of the organization. They truly work to be a “community of respect and hope” for every one of their clients. I hope that beyond this research proposal I’m able to support the work that they do in the near future.
You can read more about the Housing First model on Pine Street’s website.
Note: This article looks prettier on Medium.