With his new budget proposal, Deval Patrick has decided to take a new approach to ending homelessness.
The new proposal was filed on January 26th and will reform the emergency shelter system and work to transition to a housing first approach. The proposal aims to cut the state’s budget by 570 million, approximately 1.8 %, and is one of the biggest budget cuts of the past twenty years. One program which will see funding cuts is the emergency shelter program for homeless families
While the governor is proposing cuts in the emergency assistance program, he is also increasing funding for alternative programs that aim to place families in housing rather than shelters.
According to the administrations website, “The governor’s fiscal year 2012 budget recommendation reforms the Commonwealth’s emergency shelter program for families. The reform will reduce the state’s reliance on shelter and move towards a system with a housing first approach that will provide greater opportunity for self sufficiency while using resources more efficiently.”
While nearly everyone involved with the issue of homelessness believes it is better to place homeless families in housing before shelters, many are worried that the language in the new budget proposal will eliminate the shelter safety net; leaving many homeless families out on the street.
Ruth Bourquin has worked in the Benefits department at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute since 1989. The MLRI is a statewide legal advocacy support center. According to their website, their mission is “to provide economic, racial, and social justice for low income people through legal action, education, and advocacy.” Bourquin and those at MLRI are in support of transitioning to a housing first approach.
“In general, we all think that having families in housing is better than having families in shelters. So we support the creation of the new line item, and the continued emphasis and effort to move families into housing as soon as possible,” said Bourquin.
The new line item Bourquin is referring to proposes to transfer around $38 million dollars of funding from the Emergency Assistance line item into a new account. This new account will offer short term housing assistance to families experiencing homelessness with the goal of placing them in apartments instead of shelters. While Bourquin and MLRI support this aspect of the budget proposal, they also feel it has several inherent flaws.
“The first very troubling thing is that the language in the emergency assistance line item would limit access to shelters to only three very narrow categories of people,” said Bourquin.
The reformed Emergency assistance system would prioritize three groups of people to be eligible for shelter: families who are at risk of domestic abuse, families whose homes have been destroyed by a natural disaster, and families who have a head of household 21 years old or younger. Bourquin believes this narrow categorization of people will leave many families without options.
“Under the administration’s own estimates, which we actually believe are low, more than 60 % of the families with children who are now eligible for shelter would become ineligible under their proposal.”
Bourquin also worries that, under the new proposal, families with children who receive any aid through either of the proposed line items would not be allowed to receive further assistance for 24 months, regardless of how helpless they are. Furthermore, she anticipates that the new proposal will effectively eliminate the shelter safety system for families with nowhere to go, or families in the process of being placed in housing, which takes time.
“We need to retain access to shelter for families who need a place to stay while they are looking for housing,” said Bourquin. “Even with a real subsidy, like a federal section 8, people are given a few months to find an apartment, because the program recognizes that giving someone a subsidy is not the same as giving them housing. It takes time to go through the process of housing a family, and in the meantime, they need a place to say.”
Bourquin feels that these new alternative programs being implemented by the administration need to prove their effectiveness in housing people before the shelter system is drastically altered.
“We just think it is incredibly premature to say we are ready to take down the shelter safety net when the state has not yet proven that it can house all of these families.”
Bourquin and those at the MLRI are not alone in thinking that the new proposal will be putting homeless families at risk. Kelly Turley is the Director of Legislative Advocacy at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, located in Lynn, Massachusetts. The coalition is a statewide public policy and direct service organization.
“In the House 1 proposal, there are many key elements we support, but [we] have very strong reservations about other elements. We support strengthening the housing based response system but are concerned that the proposal would eliminate the shelter safety net for families who are looking for access to shelter while they seek affordable housing,” said Turley.
Throughout the network of individuals and organizations across Boston working towards the common goal of ending homelessness, there are a wide variety of opinions towards the House 1 proposal and its reformed approach to housing the homeless. While some, like Bourquin and Turley feel that the methodology of the proposal is inherently flawed, other major organizations in Boston support the proposal.
Denise Durham Williams is in her third year as the Executive director of One Family Inc. in Boston, a non-profit organization started twelve years ago with the central mission of ending homelessness.
“One Family is in support of the proposal. We recognize that there are some areas that could be improved. Our role is to ensure that we bring those in support of the proposal into the discussion to work on recommendations for how this can be improved as we get into the next phase,” said Williams.
Williams and One Family Inc. feel improvements can be made by allowing more regional flexibility on the housing assistance cap set in the budget proposal.
One element of the proposal One Family Inc. strongly supports is the Home Base program. Home Base is a new program that aims to provide temporary housing accommodations for families with nowhere to go. Emily Cohen serves as the associate director of policy and advocacy at One Family.
“Home Base will create a flexible housing resource for families who are homeless or about to be homeless. It is a housing alternative and is an option for families rather than motels or shelters. It is fiscally responsible and a better option for families” said Cohen.
The Interagency Council on Housing on Homelessness and Housing plays a very influential role on issues of homelessness in Boston. The council sits within the Lieutenant governor’s office and was formed by an executive order early on in Deval Patrick’s time in office. The council is comprised of the heads of 14 agencies, all of which in some way deal with homelessness. Liz Curtis Rogers is the executive director of the council, and believes that the new reformed approach outlined in the new budget proposal is the ideal path towards the ultimate goal of ending homelessness.
“The council has been charged with implementing the commonwealth’s five year strategic plan to ending homelessness. We have been working for several years to pilot the best processes to do so,” said Curtis Rogers.
“Experiences have shown us that it is more effective to provide housing based solutions rather than relying fully on shelters. We know that we need to maintain a shelter safety net for emergency cases, but what we also know is that most families need housing. In the governor’s budget we are looking to provide more resources and provide families with options besides shelters.”
Rogers understands that many people and organizations are concerned about certain aspects of the proposal, particularly the narrow categorization of people eligible for emergency assistance.
“Yes, shelter has been prioritized for certain family’s situations. We based our analysis on our current case load, and tried to determine which families are going to be the most difficult to house immediately. About 60% of the current case load will now be targeted for the Home Base housing assistance program,” said Curtis Rogers.
Rogers believes the Home base will now serve as the much needed safety net for families with nowhere to stay.
“That program will provide a housing safety net for families with nowhere to go on a particular night- Home Base will provide temporary housing accommodations. We will ensure that children have a safe place. No children will be forced to stay in a car or on the street. We are very committed to providing housing and making sure families are safe.”
Requests for comment from Patrick’s office went unreturned. However, in his budget message posted on his the administration website, the governor states: “There are many difficult changes we were forced to make to balance this budget. But in the long run, these choices allow us to be responsible to future generations.”