An exclusive interview with Lt. Gov. Tim Murray on the state's new Housing First policy

Third in a three-part series.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray chairs Governor Deval Patrick’s Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness and once worked as a housing advocate at a non-profit agency in Framingham. Mr. Murray sat down with Spare Change News recently at his State House office to discuss HomeBase, the state’s new program that seeks to shift the focus of homeless policy from a shelter-based model to a Housing First model. Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Spare Change News: Tell us about the new HomeBase program and how it evolved.

Tim Murray: Really, it’s building upon the pilot (programs) that we utilized and had a chance to work on with the state Flex Funds and then the federal HPRP (Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program). I think, very simply, it’s about tailoring solutions that meet individual families’ needs and having the flexibility within the regs and the funding to do that. We think by having that flexibility we can more rapidly re-house families and do it in a way that’s more dignified and at the same time more cost effective.

SCN: An executive order in 2007 called for a plan to end homelessness by 2013 using a Housing First strategy. How has that been going?

TM: The Legislature in 2006 created a homelessness commission, which was to begin its work in 2007. That was chaired by Tina Brooks, our undersecretary of housing, and (state Rep.) Byron Rushing. Really it brought together a very diverse array of stakeholders who worked in and around the issues of housing and homelessness, in all different sectors, with very different thoughts and opinions as to the way the system is working or not working. After a year, that very diverse group, which oftentimes found itself vigorously debating different things, ultimately reached a consensus that the state should move to a Housing First model.

What that means is a couple things. Number one, to try to create a better system-wide approach – not just governmental entities, but also our contract providers, non-profits, faith-based people, working in and around issues of housing and homelessless, housing authorities. How do we create a uniform assessment tool that raises a red flag when families and individuals are at risk of losing their current housing, and how do we try to keep them in that housing, and stabilize them there, and prevent them from becoming homeless? And in situations where they do become homeless, how do you rapidly re-house them rather than languishing in a hotel/motel for six, nine months or a year, how do you prevent them from having to enter the congregate shelter? The idea is, with this flexibility, if they have to go into a hotel/motel for a short period, get them into stable housing, then provide the wrap-around services that family may or may not need, or individual may or may not need. That’s really the focus, because … it’s hard for an individual or family to devote the time, effort and energy to move toward a path of self-sufficiency. And that might mean going back to school, getting some job training skills, it could be health issues – when you’re living in a hotel/motel. It’s hard to begin that track toward self-sufficiency or a stabilizing situation when you’re in a hotel/motel. That’s what the goal is here, and through our experience with the federal HPRP and state Flex Funds, we were able to rapidly re-house and give them that shallow subsidy that could allow them to stay for a year or two years to get them some stability, to get those skills sets to maybe rectify a situation that caused them to become homeless, and you do it in a much more dignified and cost-efficient way. The hotel/motel, you’re talking $3,000 a month, whereas a shallow subsidy and maybe some of the assistance could be $1,000.

SCN: Gov. Patrick’s original plan for HomeBase called for narrowing shelter eligibility to three narrow categories — those who are homeless due to domestic violence, emergencies including fires or other natural disasters, and those whose head of household is 21 years or younger. That met with some resistance among some homeless advocates and in the Legislature, who fought for and won changes in the bill.

TM: You can’t bring systemic change unless you get everybody focused and reinforce that . … Anyone that is homeless is going to be taken care of. If their situation is domestic violence, if someone is evicted, if there are health and code issues, if there are safety issues, they’re going to have absolute right to a hotel/motel or a shelter if that’s what’s needed. But what we want to do is try to galvanize the system to focus on rapid re-housing, so that is the first objective and goal, where there is not those situations, those categories you described.

You use the word narrow, but we think … Look, if domestic violence, health and code issues, public safety issues, if you can’t rapidly re-house … anybody is not going to be denied. But part of that uniform assessment tool and that kind of questioning is, do you have the ability to stay where you’re at, and if it’s not a safety issue or whatever, we’ll work with you to stay there for the next week or two while we find you an apartment with the HomeBase program. Is that hotel/motel placement absolutely necessary? If it is, then it’s going to be there. But the idea is to try to make the focus, the priority on utilizing the HomeBase. But let’s be clear, if somebody is in any of those types of situations, they are going to have access to a hotel/motel or, hopefully once we clear the hotel/motels, a congregate shelter, and then we’ve also added the program for young families, a specialized, more intense support program for young families who might find themselves to be homeless.

SCN – Did the changes made by legislators to HomeBASE water it down?

TM: We have worked in I think an unprecedented way in giving advocates and people who have worked in and around these fields over the years unprecedented access and opportunities to shape and scope this. I think that’s why for the most part we’ve been successful and started moving EA from DTA over to DHCD. We’ve gone the extra mile, but at some point, we need to make sure that all of our partners know what the focus and the goal is, and that mostly everybody embraced. I’d say 95 percent embraced the HomeBase program. Yes there have been some concerns and tweaks and changes, and we’ve made many of them, but at some point you’ve got to make the call and give the direction.

TM: As an example, there could be somebody coming into a DTA facility and working with a DHCD worker or working our regional networks and saying look, I’ve got to be out, I’m doubled up, we’ve got to be out. And so then the caseworker saying, ok, if we can find you a place in two weeks, an apartment, can we talk to the person you’re doubled up with and say, look, now we have a caseworker, we’re going to commit to try to find them an apartment in the couple two weeks, that being said, could they stay there another two weeks? That prevents that whole family from having to relocate to a shelter for a couple of weeks, the cost and expense, but it’s just giving that flexibility and being able to ask those questions. Now, if someone’s double up and there is domestic violence or threats of violence, then that’s not an option, then they go into a hotel/motel or a shelter.

SCN: – If shelter access is being limited and more people are moved from shelters to housing, do you worry that people are going to be in housing but not have access to stabilization services?

TM – I’m not sure I agree with your premise that we’re limiting shelter access, we’ve providing shelter in a different form, in the form of an apartment with the services. Now your question about the stabilization piece is a fair one, and one we’ve heard, and we know that we need to make sure we’re working with all of our partners to have and strengthen and look at best practices in and around the issue of stabilization so that we are getting governmental entities, the contract providers, non-profits, to bring the resources to bear, to help that stabilization process.

HomeBase has the ability to last for several years in terms of providing some assistance from start to finish. So how do we bring the resources to bear to help? Maybe it’s working with them to get a day care budget that provides that level of economic security. Maybe it’s a year’s worth of academic training to get that degree or that GED or that certificate in a particular occupational field. So it’s doing that uniform assessment, what are the family’s strengths, what are their needs, what are their challenges, how do we get them to the next level economically and work with them to do that.

Having done this work for a couple of years in my previous life, it’s prevention, stabilization, it’s building those supports, and we’re going to use our regional networks that have been very successful for the most part as a way to help us bring additional resources to bear and expertise that can support these efforts in every region of the state. We know that’s going to be critical for the success of this.

SCN – It’s projected that each HomeBASE caseworker will have a caseload of up to 60 cases. Is that a lot?

TM: We’re kind of in that range. But as we look at how do we continue to engage our regional networks and partners to bring additional resources to bear, to help in that effort, we know that’s an area that we’re going to continue to work on and potentially shore up. We want to start and focus on this in a meaningful way … that’s the central rallying point, the new charge to our regional networks, is going to be around the issue of stabilization. So we’re going to bring new resources to bear, and expertise and organization strengths that exist, to help in that effort.

I go back to that uniform assessment tool. What is an individual’s family’s strength? A certain percentage … it’s the first and only time they’ve gotten themselves into this situation, and with some quick financial assistance, or some direction or support to address a crisis that has erupted, they’re back on their way and need less intensive services. There are others who through our uniform assessment tool and engagement with the family you might learn this is their second or third time in the last 10 or 15 years that they’ve been involved. So they’re going to need much more intensive support, involvement and interaction. And so then a caseworker says how do I build a team with the regional network, with our partners, to help do that work around that family. There’s an element of triage in the work that anyone is doing in government, the non-profit world right now. We have spent a lot time, effort, energy and money to build these networks … so that particular caseworker in that region can pick up the phone to different agencies to say how do I build those supports to make that family or individual successful.

SCN: With today’s labor market, are you worried some families will not be able to maintain housing on their own once HomeBase assistance runs out?

TM – No one’s going to bat 1000. If we can use the time well, bring the supports to bear, you’re going to get a majority of these families and individuals on a pathway to self-sufficiency. Hopefully, in most cases, it is going to work that way. For others, it might be providing public housing or some other type of affordable housing through some of the private affordable (agencies). It could be any combination of things, with the priority being in and around issues of work and self-sufficiency.

The one thing that’s interesting from my broader experience as lieutenant governor, even in the last two years, two and a half years that we’ve gone through this great recession, the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression, there’s not a lack a jobs out there, when you talk to employers large and small, it’s a skills gap. Not every one of the jobs out there requires a doctorate or a college degree, in many cases it’s an associate’s degree, it could be an industry recognized credential. We were at Metropolitan Boston Housing Authority, and there were two or three women who had been able to gain work through industry recognized certificate programs. During this process, six, nine months, they were able to get skills training to tie into the health care industry. How do you get that toehold into the middle class, and those are the types of things that we want to link up.

Tom Benner is editor of Spare Change News. Email him at editor@sparechangenews.net

(Photo credit: Eugena Ossi/Governor’s Office)

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