Father Bill’s & MainSpring (FBMS) manages two year-round shelters for individual adults and more than 130 shelter units for families – and as you can imagine, we have seen firsthand the impact that COVID-19 is having on vulnerable people experiencing homelessness.
Located in Brockton, our MainSpring House property is a congregate emergency shelter for homeless individuals that, prior to the pandemic, served an average of nearly 140 adults each night. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded last spring, FBMS worked immediately to depopulate the shelter for safe social distancing by erecting temporary outdoor tents. But we knew that was not a viable long-term solution for our guests, many of whom are elderly, immunocompromised, or at high risk with other medical conditions.
The answer was the 69-room Rodeway Inn hotel in Brockton, which was sitting empty due to the pandemic. FBMS leased the entire hotel and moved more than 60 of our shelter guests into the hotel. The positive COVID-19 rate among FBMS’ Brockton guests plummeted from an initial high of 30 percent to less than 1 percent after they moved into the hotel.
What began as an emergency measure to save lives shifted to an innovative strategy that can serve as a national model for how we address homelessness: converting an existing property into permanent supportive housing. In December 2020, the CEDAC Board approved a $4.3 million acquisition loan to FBMS for the purchase of the Rodeway Inn. FBMS will renovate the property and add kitchenettes to all rooms, which already have their own private bathrooms, turning them into 69 enhanced single room occupancy (SRO) units. Additional site improvements include a common laundry room and electrical, mechanical, and life safety systems. We are grateful to CEDAC for their early support, which has helped make this important project possible.
FBMS’ new tenants will have access to case managers who will help them remain housed and become more self-sufficient. As an agency, FBMS already manages more than 550 permanent supportive housing units for formerly homeless individuals, families, and Veterans across Southern Massachusetts.
Transforming an existing property is typically more cost-effective than developing new housing. FBMS’ Rodeway Inn project has an estimated total development cost of $10.1 million, or $147,000 per unit, which is relatively low compared to other projects utilizing the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program.
The Rodeway Inn project is an excellent example of a public-private partnership. In addition to CEDAC, FBMS has applied for funding commitments through the state Department of Housing and Community Development’s rolling Homeless SRO Housing Funding Round, and we will also utilize private donations to finance the renovations. Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan and Brockton’s state delegation have been very supportive of the plan.
There’s no question that the pandemic illuminated the fact that housing and health are intrinsically linked. It created an especially urgent life-or-death situation for people in emergency shelters, prompting governments and provider organizations to respond quickly and think outside the box.
The pandemic also led to broad community awareness over societal inequities and how health protocols such as social distancing, hygiene, and creating safer spaces could save lives. It also created a situation requiring innovation and change. In this case, COVID-19 halted travel, which led to a local hotel without guests and motivated the property owner to consider alternative uses or selling the facility.
Community-level innovations in response to COVID-19 are underway across the country. Similar conversions of hotels into efficiency apartments are being done in California, Oregon, and Washington State.
The first project of its kind in Massachusetts, FBMS’ Rodeway Inn conversion alone could reduce Brockton’s homeless population by half. It’s a game-changer. But the goal is to keep reducing the homeless population (and ultimately end homelessness altogether) — and that will require continued innovation, public-private collaboration, and long-term investments in new permanent housing and non-congregant emergency housing solutions. For example, in addition to dormant hotels, offices and commercial properties left empty by the pandemic may present additional opportunities to create SRO or family housing.
No one knows what the “new normal” will look like, but after having endured the pandemic for a year, communities now have a better understanding of our vulnerable populations and the resources necessary to address their housing needs.