Editorial: Doubled demand for housing over shelters, hotels

“This is not a math problem. It’s a problem with an economy where people are having their lives turned upside down, and we’re going to have to deal with that, and we’re trying to deal with that.”

That’s Gov. Deval Patrick, as quoted by State House News Service, explaining the need for $18.2 million in supplemental mid-year funding for HomeBASE, the state’s new policy initiative to combat homelessness, bringing the cost to $56.8 million for the current fiscal year.

The governor is trying to calm fears that the HomeBASE program, which took effect on Aug. 1, is somehow unsustainable or faulty policy.

HomeBASE, a rental subsidy program, is the centerpiece of the administration’s “housing first” approach to homelessness. The idea is to move the homeless out of shelters – or costly state-subsidized hotel and motel rooms, when shelters are full – and into permanent housing, surrounded by the support services they may need to remain housed, such as substance abuse or mental health counseling, workforce training, or child care vouchers so that single parents may go to work. Families eligible for rental subsidies — with incomes below 115 percent of the federal poverty limit — may receive assistance for up to three years, and are required to pay up to 35 percent of their income for rent and utilities.

The program is designed to save money in the long run. Spending $4,000 on a subsidy to help a family on the verge of becoming homeless to remain housed, or approximately $13,500 on rental assistance and stabilization services for a family, is far cheaper than the average $40,000 cost per year of putting the same family up in a motel.

What wasn’t expected was the demand.

The Patrick administration reports that the reforms so far have provided over 3,000 families with household or rental assistance and reduced the number of families being sheltered in emergency assistance hotels by 28 percent. While the new initiative has shown successes, the overall demand for emergency assistance has doubled. Requests for shelter and housing assistance went from 500 to 1,000 in August to 932 in September, state figures show.

This increased demand put an obvious strain on existing funds for the program. With demand exceeding expectations and estimates, promises of future savings may not be a guaranteed thing. What if the program is drawing individuals who weren’t previously in shelters? Or if the average person stays in a shelter for short periods, while the average person participating in HomeBASE participates for a year, or three years?

The supplemental spending for HomeBASE comes with a new legislative panel charged with finding ways to make the program as cost-effective as possible, with a Dec. 9 deadline to report back with recommendations. Tweaking is inevitable, particularly for such an ambitious new program.

The Patrick administration maintains that while doubled demand at the front door has overwhelmed the program, a housing response to homelessness represents a more dignified solution, helping families to stabilize themselves in their own communities and requiring steps toward self-sufficiency. Indeed, getting people into housing and breaking the cycle of homelessness remain important goals.

Still, the public will need convincing that the program is sustainable.

In the long term, the demand for HomeBASE assistance points to the ongoing need for more affordable housing in Massachusetts. Currently, a bill in the Legislature sponsored by Rep. Kevin Honan seeks to create 1,000 new supportive housing units over the next three years – that can help in starting to fill the void. In addition, the ongoing need for workforce training and educational programs that help Massachusetts residents to find jobs and reach economic independence remains as pressing as ever.

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