Another battle expected on funding for homeless programs

Tom Benner
Spare Change News

WELLESLEY — The Patrick administration is trying for a second year in a row to move money currently used to put up the homeless in shelters and motels into permanent housing solutions.

But another battle is expected at the State House as advocates differ over the most controversial aspect of the plan – limit shelter access while simultaneously increasing funding for state-supported housing programs designed to help low-income families find permanent housing or prevent them from becoming homeless.

The Patrick administration proposes to limit shelter access to those families who are actively fleeing domestic violence, lost their housing due to fire or natural disaster, or families with children living in risk. But some shelter advocates say if that happens, the safety net would be dismantled and homeless families would be turned out into the streets before an adequate housing-based alternative is fully in place.

A one-time homeless mother, Diane Sullivan, said at a March 19 forum on homelessness that limited shelter access would have meant living in a van for her and her family.

“Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that families have not already been in this situation, living in cars,” said Sullivan, who now advocates for the group Homes for Families. While she supports an emphasis on putting people into housing over emergency shelters, Sullivan added, “I cannot get behind and support doing that at the sacrifice of the safety net of shelter. Is it OK to pit one poor population against another? I say no.”

The long-term push to move the homeless out of shelters and motels and into permanent housing has been stymied by economic recession, stagnant incomes, and a growing demand for affordable housing, said Rep. Byron Rushing, a South End Democrat and an architect of the Patrick administration’s so-called Housing-First approach to combating homeless.

“We have certainly been hindered by our economy, but there is nothing that has happened that should change our priorities to housing first,” Rushing said.

Rushing and other Housing First advocates developed a new state initiative called HomeBASE, a rental subsidy program for homeless families. However, just three months after its creation last August, there were so many families applying for housing assistance that the state was forced to stop issuing subsidies.

Lizbeth Heyer, associate director of public housing and rental assistance for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said demand at emergency shelters skyrocketed by 91 percent following the creation of the HomeBase housing allowance as an alternative to staying at shelters. She attributed the increased demand largely to people who had been “doubled up” – meaning staying with family or friends in overcrowded conditions.

“The conclusion that we draw from this is that many of these families are not in an emergency homeless crisis,” Heyer said. “They are no doubt under-housed, they are housing challenged, living in doubled-up situations is not ideal, but they are not on the street or in danger of being on the street tonight. And what we’re talking about is how to figure out how to serve those families in a different way, in a way that is less expensive and not shelter.”

One month of sheltering a family in an emergency shelter costs the state about $3,200, while putting a family in affordable housing costs at most about $1,000 to $1,200, Heyer said.

“We know shelters are bad environments for kids and we know housing is less expensive (than shelters),” Heyer said. “So the question that we’ve been grappling with … is how do we invest in housing solutions instead of shelter, without letting those families in real emergencies fall through the cracks?”

The answer, she said, is two separate but connected approaches.

“We need both a responsible emergency shelter safety net for those families who are truly are in a shelter emergency and have no place to stay tonight,” Heyer said. “And then we need to shift resources from the shelter system into a robust housing continuum that both helps prevent people from becoming homeless but also supports families in housing.”

Both Rushing and Heyer both said in addition to funding for emergency shelters and affordable housing, the state must continue to invest in work supports that help low-income residents to become economically self-sufficient.

“At the heart of it is poverty, at the heart of it is trying to find a way to help families achieve a stable housing situation and then support those families in that stable housing situation in taking the next step, to finish an education, attain a job, and ultimately earn an income that supports them in their housing stability long-term,” Heyer said.

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

Photo: Ashlee Avery

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