Meet the New Year, Same as the Old Year?

Tom Benner
Spare Change News

The year 2011 marked a new turn in the fight against homelessness in Massachusetts. HomeBASE, a new state initiative designed to steer homeless families from shelters and motels into homes of their own, went into effect on Aug. 1. The promising program sought to move the homeless into permanent housing, and to help those at risk of homelessness to remain in their homes.

By October, money for the rental-assistance program had run dry, and a hefty mid-year appropriation of $19 million in supplemental funding was needed to keep the program afloat, bringing the cost to $56.8 million for the current fiscal year. In November, the Patrick administration reported that HomeBASE had provided over 3,000 families with household or rental assistance and had reduced the number of families being sheltered in emergency assistance hotels by 28 percent. But requests for shelter and housing assistance doubled the state’s projections, going from 500 to 1,000 in August to 932 in September alone. The Department of Housing and Community Development suspended benefits for new applicants retroactive to Oct. 28 – and it is expected that no new applicants to the program will be accepted for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Heading into 2012, advocates for the homeless and affordable housing have mixed feelings about whether the program can succeed in cutting down the growing homeless population.

“I don’t think we’ve made real strides at all, I think we’ve gone backwards in a lot of ways,” said Mark Alston-Follansbee, director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition.

“The fact is that there are more people either who are homeless or at risk of homelessness now than ever before. To me that’s an indictment on our society, that we’re not taking this problem seriously.”

HomeBASE was designed 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.

Cost-savings seemed inevitable. 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.

But state officials didn’t anticipate the demand. Advocates for the homeless and low-income say they aren’t surprised that so many want assistance to stay in housing.

“HomeBASE would have saved money because you’re spending less than you’re spending on shelter, and you’d be able to put that money back into supportive services and eventually into permanent housing,” Alston-Follansbee said. “But they failed to realize what the real need was, and that need, when it came to the front door, just overwhelmed them.”

Even with substantial rental subsidies lasting up to three years, Alston-Follansbee believes the cost of living in Greater Boston is too high for many to remain housed. He cited a Crittenton Women’s Union’s Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Standard that found that to cover bare-bones costs, a mother with two children needs to earn $58,000 in income, or four times what the minimum wage pays. No wonder, he said, that the coalition’s food pantry saw its demand increase by 20 percent last year.

“We don’t really know how many people are homeless,” he said. “We can count people in our shelters and our different programs and we do a street outreach count once a year. If you began to count people who are doubled up, who have unstable housing – we talk about 3.5 million over the course of the year, 750,000 on any given night in the United States – that number would easily double if we really knew how many people are really homeless.”

An increased affordable housing supply is the only answer to homelessness, Alston-Follansbee said. And that will require the involvement of the federal government – and a national realignment of priorities, he said.

“We’ve now spent $4 trillion on the war in Iraq, we have over 20 percent of children in the country dependent upon food stamps, we have 25 million living in deep poverty, and we have no idea what the long-term costs and consequences of those wars are going to be,” he said. “I have a particular edge on this stuff because I was in Vietnam, and I see how many people are homeless. A large, disproportionate number of the homeless are veterans. We send people off to wars as heroes; when they come back, we turn our backs on them. The VA is totally strapped and unable to meet the demand of people coming in and asking for help. That’s why the suicide rate is so high among veterans. More people died from substance abuse and suicide after coming back from Vietnam than died in Vietnam. And it’s going to happen again.”

Dennis Culhane, a leading expert on housing issues who has worked as a consultant to Massachusetts on housing policy, said HomeBASE failed to move enough resources from the shelter system to housing assistance.

“There was no cost containment in the proposal,” Culhane said in a recent interview with Spare Change News. “It was very clear that on the one hand, shelter eligibility was not narrowed, and they were granting a fairly generous housing benefit, and that was not going to be sustainable. The money to pay for housing subsidies was supposed to come from reducing the shelter system, but you can’t save money in the shelters unless you successfully narrow who gets shelter. For a lot of homeless families, they don’t actually need emergency shelter – it’s just a way-station until they get a new home.”

For now, the Oct. 28 cutoff for HomeBASE rental assistance is expected to remain in effect for the remainder of the fiscal year, limiting its scope and impact on the homeless. Advocates say they’ll continue to press for an increase in key homeless prevention strategies as Gov. Patrick prepares his FY 2013 budget, including rental assistance and affording public housing.

TOM BENNER is editor of Spare Change News. Email him at editor@sparechangenews.net

PHOTO / JEFF__/FLICkER/CREATIVE COMMONS

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