NEW BEDFORD — Local housing advocates say it’s possible to end chronic homelessness in the city.

That would mean no one would have to sleep in a tent for months on end. No one would have to depend on donated meals as a way of life. No one would be blocked from stable housing by a substance use disorder or mental health condition.

There’s no such thing as zero homelessness, but communities can reach “functional zero” by making homelessness rare and brief. Homeless people in these communities don’t get stuck in shelters — they're quickly provided support to find permanent housing again.

This is a reality in Bergen County, New Jersey.

It was the first community in the United States to reach functional zero in 2016, according to the housing nonprofit Community Solutions. That means that in any given month, the county’s homeless service providers have enough capacity to find permanent housing for every person who is currently homeless. For example, if the community can move 20 people through its system in a month, then it stays at functional zero as long as 20 or fewer people are homeless each month.

Within functional zero, there can still be homelessness, but it’s rare and brief because the community has the capacity to continuously move all those people back into permanent housing.


All of Bergen County’s resources for homeless people are available in one spot, a 24-hour shelter that serves three meals a day. The 90-bed facility cost the county $11 million to build in 2009.

With big windows, a creamy white exterior, and landscaping in front, it looks more like a LaQuinta Inn than a shelter. That’s by design — it was built to be a place where homeless people will want to go.

Just like in a hotel, guests who check in are expected to eventually check out. Case workers try to move people out of the shelter and into more permanent arrangements as quickly as possible. Shelter guests may need help managing a range of challenges like substance abuse, mental health, and other issues, but case workers aggressively prioritize the need for housing above all else.

This approach is called “housing first,” an idea that’s been around for decades. It’s a reversal from the previous status quo, where service providers would require homeless people to address their substance abuse and mental health problems before they could be housed. Instead, housing first is based on the idea that it’s a lot easier to get your life back on track once you have a place to call home.

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The Biden administration backs the housing first approach as part of its “All In” initiative's goal to reduce homelessness 25 percent by 2025, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development supports housing first through its “House America” initiative.

“We often say, ‘If they do this, they can get this,’” said Danielle Brown, a program director for Steppingstone Inc., a local homeless service provider. “We need to stop telling people what they ‘need’ to do.”

Opponents of housing first say that not all people are ready to live independently, particularly those struggling with severe mental health and addiction issues. They say that housing stability shouldn’t necessarily be put before other needs, especially if those needs are part of the reason why someone couldn’t maintain permanent housing in the first place.

Carl Alves, the chief executive officer at Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction, doesn’t oppose housing first. But he said that not everyone is ready to go straight from living in a shelter to maintaining their own apartment.

“Just giving them an apartment does not solve their problem,” he said. “However, giving them a place to stay that is comfortable and accessible for them, and low-barrier, is the first step to connect with people so they can focus on the other aspects of their lives.”

Alves said housing first only works if people are also given the right support to succeed in permanent housing. New Bedford needs more transitional and supportive housing, he said — the kind that offers case management for addiction, mental health, and other issues along with a place to stay.

Brown said that providers create barriers when they require someone to overcome their addiction or mental health issues before allowing them to access stable housing. She said she’s believed in the housing first approach since she met Julia Orlando, the Bergen County shelter director, through a grant program with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Brown introduced Orlando to New Bedford city staff and pushed to bring the shelter director here to show the city how to replicate Bergen County’s success.

On a Thursday morning last month, dozens of local service providers, city staff, elected officials, and other interested citizens filed into the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s auditorium to hear Orlando explain her strategy. During her 90-minute presentation, she told the crowd the goal should be to end homelessness — not just to manage it.

“We don’t end homelessness with food and blankets,” she said. “We don’t even end homelessness with shelter. The only thing that ends homelessness is housing.”

There were 370 homeless people in New Bedford in early 2022, according to the most recent data from the city’s annual count. Sixty-one of them were not in shelters, and preliminary data from this year’s point in time count shows roughly the same number of unsheltered people.

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Dozens of organizations in New Bedford offer help through the city’s Homeless Service Providers Network. Some parts of the network’s approach already resemble housing first, and Orlando praised the city for its success in keeping people in permanent housing once they get there. That’s part of why local advocates see functional zero as an achievable goal.

“I think we’ve got a lot to build upon,” said Josh Amaral, director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development. “It’s just a matter of figuring out what the right levers are to elevate our homelessness system from good to great.”

Other advocates agreed: New Bedford can reach functional zero.

“It just comes down to political will — are we willing to put our money where our mouth is?” said City Councilor Shane Burgo, who chairs the council’s housing committee.

Mayor Jon Mitchell was not at Orlando’s presentation because of a scheduling conflict, his staff said. Mitchell did not make time for an interview with The Light in the days after the event, but he issued a statement thanking the city’s health and housing departments for organizing the event.

“Although the City and its network of providers are recognized as having made considerable progress in responding to people experiencing homelessness, there is much work still to be done,” Mitchell stated. “I am encouraged that the inspiration drawn from this session, coupled with the planning efforts underway, will enable us to take our services to the proverbial next level.”

Last week, the city announced a plan to allocate more than $3 million in federal funding to address housing instability and affordability. The plan sets aside $700,000 to develop shelters for victims fleeing domestic violence and nearly $300,000 for supportive services to help people achieve stable housing.

Other items in the plan include money for affordable housing development, rental assistance, and funding for nonprofits. Specific project plans for each funding category have yet to be developed.

Amaral, Burgo, and nonprofit leaders recognized the success Bergen County had with a large 24-hour shelter and one-stop resource center. They weren’t sure exactly what a center like that would look like in New Bedford — none proposed a specific plan or site — but they all thought it was an idea worth considering.

“There’s not one person I’ve talked to that doesn’t say we need a 24-hour shelter,” Burgo said.

The councilor proposed that the city use some of its $64 million in federal pandemic stimulus money to cover the initial cost of building a new shelter. Then, it could operate the shelter with ongoing funding sources from the Community Preservation Act and federal community development grants.

Burgo said a shelter would be one way to fill a recent decline in the number of housing projects under the Community Preservation Act, which funds affordable housing, historic preservation, and outdoor spaces. 

Julia Orlando, Director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center, speaks at the “getting to functional zero” meeting at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Credit: Eleonora Bianchi / Petarenapro

“Right now we’re in such a crisis that I don't want to see any more CPA funds used for restoration of a painting,” he said. “If we’re asking the people of New Bedford about what they want to spend their tax dollars on, I think they would rather see it go towards more housing.”

Brown, the Steppingstone program director, said she’s seen her clients struggle to keep appointments because agencies are scattered throughout the city. It would be easier to connect people with resources if they were all in one place like they are in Bergen County, she said.

But a big resource center with more shelter beds won’t solve the crisis alone, Orlando said.

“You can’t just have a good shelter, because if you just have a good shelter, then your front door is open and your back door is closed,” she said during her presentation.

Advocates agreed that there needs to be more permanent housing for people leaving shelters. But for there to be more supportive housing, Alves said there needs to be more housing in general. That would make it easier for organizations like Steppingstone and PAACA to acquire units to rent out.

Alves acknowledged that some residents will push back against more homeless resources in their neighborhoods because they’re worried about nuisances.

“But someone who is housed is less likely to create a nuisance in the community than someone who is not housed,” he said.

In interviews with The Light, Orlando outlined a range of other ideas she thinks could help New Bedford.

Bergen County has programs to stop people from becoming homeless in the first place — the community provides funds to help people pay back rent or a deposit on a new apartment if they’re facing homelessness from an eviction.

“Prevention is the most important thing, and we don’t talk about it very much,” she said. “It’s much easier to prevent someone from becoming homeless than it is to house them again.”

Orlando encouraged New Bedford to set up a similar crisis response program, and she’s not the first. Joe Quigley, a New Bedford tenant who was on the verge of homelessness a few months ago after an investor bought his apartment building, has advocated for the city to set up an office that could connect tenants with resources when they’re facing eviction.

“Something like a hotline,” he told The Light in November. “A central place where they could put you in touch with anybody you need to save your ass.”

The city and local nonprofits do offer services for those facing eviction and experiencing homelessness, but some advocates have called for the city to establish a central office or appoint a coordinator to quickly connect people with the right resources.

New Bedford could also improve its use of data, Orlando said. In Bergen County, agencies maintain a list of unhoused people with information on who they are and what their needs are. Each person has a vulnerability score based on how urgently they need assistance, and that helps the agencies prioritize who to help first. New Bedford doesn’t have a system like that yet.

Local advocates are also thinking about other ways to mirror Bergen County. Amaral said New Bedford should take a more regional approach by collaborating across municipalities, just as Orlando did.

“It behooves everybody to be on the same page, and if we put our resources together we can maximize our response,” he said.

Burgo was also interested in coordinating with the towns around New Bedford.

Brown said she wants to see more collaboration across organizations and the community as a whole. She proposed setting up community meetings that invite residents, landlords, businesses, public officials, and lawmakers to brainstorm solutions together. Unhoused people should be part of that discussion too, she said.

What if creating more resources for homeless people in New Bedford only brings more of them to the area? If the city builds a large shelter and resource center, will it have to serve people coming from Fall River, or even Brockton?

“If you build it, they will come,” the saying goes. Service providers say it’s a common reaction to their proposals. But Brown said she’s already seeing people from out of town.

“We’re not even building it and they are coming,” she said. “Let them come. Let’s be the model to show that it works so we can build more.”

Brown also said that unhoused people coming to New Bedford could eventually contribute to the community as workers, once they get on their feet.

Orlando said she hears “build it and they will come” all the time, but it’s a manageable issue. When people come to Bergen County for homeless services, her team connects them with resources in the place where they came from and sends them back.

She added that those concerns shouldn’t stop New Bedford from increasing its capacity to serve the homeless population that’s already here.

“What people don’t realize is people in your own community fall into homelessness,” she said. “If you have a really good response system in place to help people, you provide an incredibly important service to your community.”

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1 Comment

  1. I have followed Dr. Sam Tsemberis, Pathways to Housing, for a while now.
    Please take a minute to look at his tedtalk and check out Pathways Housing First, founded in 1992. This is a program which has been successful in cities all over the U.S. and the World. New Bedford would benefit from this approach.

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