Effort moves forward on chronically homeless in Hyannis

 Plans call for outreach to each homeless individual
'Zero tolerance' approach advocated for disruptive behavior

By James Kinsella

A coalition of residents, business people, social service providers and government officials are working out a coordinated effort to address the situation of chronically homeless people in downtown Hyannis.

Plans call for outreach to meet with and document every individual who falls into that category, to arrange for housing and necessary services for the individuals, and to pursue a "zero tolerance" policy by police and the courts toward disruptive behavior.

Meetings on the issue, which have been drawing up to 50 people, have been sponsored by the Leadership Council to End Homelessness on Cape Cod and the Islands, dedicated to providing a regional continuum of care.

The Community Action Committee, a non-profit organization in Hyannis that seeks to help local people in need, is the council's convening agency.

The meetings are an outgrowth of a community meeting Oct. 28 at the Federated Church, where people both housed and unhoused in Hyannis spoke about the homeless in downtown Hyannis and what, if anything, to do about them.

Residents and business owners expressed concern about disruptive behavior by a relatively small number of homeless people. They said the behavior, including public urination and defecation, the shouting of obscenities, and public intoxication, is adversely affecting civic life and commercial life on and near Main Street.

Estella Fritzinger, executive director of the Community Action Committee, said meetings are under way to discuss the best way to help who she identifies as the "chronically homeless."

Fritzinger said these individuals are unwilling to use or abide by the rules to stay in homeless shelters, might not have had proper social service management, and also might have mental health issues.

They are generically described in social-service nomenclature as "Tier Four." People in other tiers, the lower-numbered ones, are characterized as being more temporarily homeless.

Key to the plan is the development of a detailed list of individuals who fit the Tier Four profile. Human and social service agencies would take on the responsibility of reaching out to each individual, and work to get him or her appropriate housing and the kind of services to help each individual stay housed.

People working on the effort also want to help foster a more effective response toward disruptive behavior by the criminal justice system.

Police who arrest individuals on the street for disorderly conduct often see those cases dismissed once they get to court.

Effort participants plan to encourage judges to ensure that individuals who engage in disruptive behavior answer for their behavior.

One idea, put forward by Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, is to create a continuing judicial session focused on the homeless, along the same lines as the regularly held "substance abuse sessions" (informally known as "drug court") at district court.

Deb Krau, vice president of the Greater Hyannis Civic Association, which represents residents in the area, welcomes the discussions at and the possible outcomes of the meetings.

Krau said the civic association is "very, very supportive of [having] extensive coordinated outreach on the streets."

She backs the idea of developing a particular housing and social service plan for each Tier Four individual, and then following up to make certain that plan is being followed. Accountability, she said, is crucial.

Krau traces much of the problem to individuals not allowed in existing shelters such as the Noah Shelter on Winter Street because of substance abuse and behavior issues, or who choose to avoid using social services.

Disruptive behavior by these individuals, she said, can have a wider effect.

"They affect the quality of life of our residents," Krau said.

On one hand, she said, residents want these people to have decent housing rather than live in homeless camps in and near downtown Hyannis.

"We want these people to be taken care of," she said.

On the other, she said, residents want to be able to walk around Hyannis without experiencing disruptive behavior.

"We like the village green too," Krau said. "We would like to be able to use it sometimes."

The business community also welcomes the effort to come to grips with disruptive behavior exhibited by some individuals in downtown Hyannis.

"This has been a huge problem, so we want to get something done on it," said Deborah Converse, president and chief executive officer of the Hyannis Area Chamber of Commerce.

Cynthia Cole, executive director of the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District, said business people aren't faulting homeless people in general, but rather a specific group of individuals.

"We are talking about people who refuse all services and believe they can behave however they want and offend whoever they want," Cole said.

A continuing concern among Hyannis business people and residents is that Hyannis functions as a de facto magnet for homeless people, not only from around the Cape but from off-Cape.

Of the homeless in Hyannis, they estimate perhaps half come from off-Cape, with another quarter from other towns on Cape Cod.

A new grant announced Tuesday by Gov. Deval Patrick's office is designed to address the regional nature of homelessness.

The office awarded $8 million to eight regional pilot networks around the state, including $765,000 to the Housing Assistance Corp. in Hyannis for the Cape and Islands region.

According to the governor's office, the networks are intended to better coordinate, integrate and implement services to secure permanent housing for homeless individuals and families, and to ultimately lessen the need for emergency assistance shelters.

Ric Presbrey, chief executive officer and president of Housing Assistance, said the nonprofit organization will use the grant to provide better and more immediate services to people who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless, and to better provide resources to outlying communities whose residents have become homeless.

Presbrey said the grant is designed to better get the homeless into housing, and to help them stay in that housing. He said it's far more cost-effective to keep people in housing and out of the emergency shelters.

The grant, Presbrey said, doesn't specifically allude to disruptive behavior on the streets of Hyannis, but does address the regional nature of homelessness, which ends up affecting Hyannis.

Other initiatives being pursued by participants in the discussions on the homeless in Hyannis include a documenting of the government costs, including those of police and rescue workers, who deal with the homeless; sponsoring a dialogue and exchange visits with Asheville, N.C., a similar community that has been dealing with a homeless problem; and a 24-hour hotline to address situations involving the homeless.

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