At MHSA’s 13th Annual Spring Fundraising Event, Home for Good: Solutions Start Here, we will celebrate three honorees who have made outstanding contributions to ending homelessness. Today we launch this year’s Spotlight on the Honorees blog series with an interview with Jerry Ray, Vice President of Homeless Services at MHSA member agency Mental Health Association, Inc. (MHA) in Springfield, MA.
For the past 22 years, under Mr. Ray’s leadership, MHA has developed a continuum of services for homeless adults with disabilities, including Prevention, Outreach, Specialized Shelters and Permanent Housing with Supportive Services. In 1992, MHA was awarded the first Shelter Plus Care grant in Western Massachusetts. Since then, they have continued their innovative approach to housing the area’s most vulnerable population, piloting a variety of housing models that are seen today as precursors to the Housing First model. Mr. Ray first became involved in serving the area’s homeless population in 1984, supervising the City of Springfield’s first emergency shelter to operate in decades. He was a committee member in the development of the Springfield Continuum of Care and their 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, as well as in the formation of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. Jerry continues to serve on local, regional and statewide homeless coalitions with a focus on ending homelessness through housing solutions. He received his undergraduate degree in 1983 from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has done graduate work in Public Administration at American International College, Springfield and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
What motivates your work to end homelessness?
Knowing that in the 21st century, in the richest nation in the world, we still have hundreds of thousands of men, women and children living on the streets and in shelters. Watching families disintegrate and children grow into a new generation of homeless adults. Seeing entrenched poverty reminiscent of my Peace Corps days in the developing world. All the while, still believing that lessons learned over decades of innovative housing programs – successfully keeping our most vulnerable fellow citizens housed and healthy – can be applied to the root causes of homelessness. This is what motivates me.
Why has the Housing First model been a key part of your efforts to respond to homelessness in your community?
We learned from the very first Shelter Plus Care (S+C) grant I ran in the early 1990s that individuals with behavioral health issues and extensive histories of homelessness would not accept the offer of housing if there were demands other than tenant responsibilities placed on them. That first S+C project was designed to be as barrier-free as possible. As a seasoned street outreach worker, I knew the strengths that these individuals had. Against the advice of the clinical team, we took folks from the woods, streets and abandoned houses and placed them directly into their own apartments. We were resource-rich and managed a steep learning curve – and it worked. Several of the participants who were enrolled in that program are still housed today. That project was replicated several times over with similar success, and as the national focus on chronic homelessness took hold, we had the data to show that this approach worked. The number of people experiencing chronic homelessness in the community was reduced dramatically, and other agencies began to embrace what became known as Housing First. Today, Housing First is not only an expectation of federal homeless assistance grants – it is now a best practice demanded in state agency requests for proposals (RFPs) that fund the services integral to the success of these projects. We’ve come a long way.
What are the greatest challenges to expanding permanent supportive housing in Massachusetts, and how can we address those challenges?
I see the greatest challenges to expanding permanent supportive housing in Massachusetts as remaining too narrowly focused on one subpopulation and relying on traditional avenues of funding. The benefits on health, education and community-wide well-being, as a result of this approach, need to be understood and applied to a much larger constituency. Innovative approaches such as Pay for Success need to be scaled up. Collaborations with lead partners, like MHSA, need to continue in the development of innovative housing programs that produce the outcomes and the data necessary for the broadest appeal during this period of endless tight budgets. Done correctly, the argument will be so compelling that the production of affordable housing at levels not seen in years will finally become a reality.
What does this award mean to you?
The William Lloyd Garrison Lifetime Achievement Award is a special honor. It brings with it the historical tie to another social travesty from which we are still learning lessons today, and it has been presented to individuals – many much more deserving than I – who have fought tirelessly to abolish homelessness. While reflecting on the idea of a Lifetime Achievement, I am humbled, yet honored, because this award represents for me my small role in the local, regional and statewide efforts that have brought us all that much closer to the goal of ending homelessness.