Study finds Franklin County homeless population on the rise

Pamela Schwartz, director of Western Mass. Network to End Homelessness, speaks  at the annual regional meeting held at Holyoke Community College Friday morning, May 31, 2024.

Pamela Schwartz, director of Western Mass. Network to End Homelessness, speaks at the annual regional meeting held at Holyoke Community College Friday morning, May 31, 2024. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 07-03-2024 5:00 PM

Modified: 07-08-2024 3:14 PM


The number of homeless people in Franklin County has more than doubled in the last year, as the annual Point-in-Time count in January found 252 people sleeping in shelters or outside, compared to 104 in January 2023.

Franklin County accounted for approximately one-fifth of the total increase of homeless people in all of western Massachusetts – defined as Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties – which saw 3,862 homeless people counted on Jan. 31, compared to 3,305 people counted in 2023.

The annual Point-in-Time count is a national initiative set up by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to determine the greatest needs for homeless people with and without shelter. Nationally, regions within each state are broken up into a Continuum of Care (CoC), where organizations work together to survey homeless populations and offer them resources, such as sleeping bags, backpacks or warm clothing. Western Massachusetts is broken up into the Berkshire-Franklin-Hampshire Three County CoC — the largest geographic CoC in the state — and the Hampden County CoC.

“There’s no area where there isn’t an increase: unsheltered, individual and family, they’re all rising,” said Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. “That’s the reality we’re staring at.”

The number, Schwartz added, is “most definitely an undercount” as HUD’s definition of homeless does not include people who are sleeping on friends’ and family’s couches on a temporary basis or other similar arrangements.

Part of the huge spike in Franklin County numbers are a result of the Haitian immigrants that are currently staying in shelters operated by ServiceNet in Greenfield. The inclusion of the immigrants in this data explains the massive disparities in the race and ethnicity and age demographics included in the data.

In 2023, just 6% of those counted were Black or African American and 24 people were aged 0 to 18 years old, while 2024’s data shows 56% of people counted were Black or African American and 82 people were 0 to 18 years old. The number of people in families skyrocketed from 42 to 171 in that same time frame, as well.

Other driving factors behind the increased number of homeless people include rising rents, lack of affordable housing, the continued effects of the opioid epidemic and the severe mental health or substance-use crises resulting from the pandemic.

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“If there’s any person with a constellation of that, you’re in real trouble,” Schwartz said. “The good news is we do know what works in response to homelessness.”

“We know that housing-first works, which means no barriers to housing,” she added. “Good policies and adequate resources make a difference; they are a real solution.”

Initiatives Schwartz and the network are targeting include the sealing of eviction records – which still show up in the database even if the tenant wins – support for the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives the first right of purchase to a tenant; allowing accessory dwelling units by right; repealing the ban on local rent control and a pilot access-to-counsel-in-evictions program to assist tenants who may be facing eviction.

“We know what works and we need to do more of it,” Schwartz said. “We need the political will to do it.” 

The data was also discussed at the eighth annual gathering of the network in May, where community leaders, mayors, lawmakers and Housing Secretary Ed Augustus gathered to call attention to the data and discuss ways to address the rising number of people who are finding themselves homeless.

“One of the greatest consequences of our ongoing housing crisis has been the rise of homelessness," Augustus said in a press release. "Many people, through no fault of their own, have been priced out or squeezed out of housing in Massachusetts. But we can do something about it. It starts with building more housing to meet the demand and to lower costs for everyone. And it continues with important changes like giving access to legal counsel to low-income tenants and owner occupants in eviction proceedings. Gov. Healey's budget is the first budget ever to include this.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.