From State House News Service:
By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON, STATE HOUSE, MAY 29, 2012…..When House and Senate lawmakers debated the annual budget this year, homelessness – and the question of what to do with the thousands of families living in motels and hotels across the state – took center stage for lengthy debates in both branches.
Both the House and Senate funded programs in the fiscal year 2013 budget to prevent families from becoming homeless; set aside money to aid previously homeless families get started in new homes; and increased funding for rental assistance. But the branches are in a quandary over what to do with the more than 1,500 families living in hotels and motels across the state, creating frustration among legislators.
Placing families in hotels and motels for months on end is unfair to them, a burden on the communities that host them, and doesn’t solve the problem, several lawmakers said during debate.
Sen. James Welch – who was part of a lengthy discussion in the Senate – told the News Service Tuesday that it was “without a doubt the worst state policy that I have seen.”
In Welch’s district, which includes Springfield, West Springfield and Chicopee, there are currently 255 families living in motels or hotels. Welch and other senators said the state’s policy of placing families in hotels when family shelters are full is unfair to them.
“I don’t know how we as a commonwealth can actually say this is a viable option,” Welch said. “As we continue to ignore it, I think we are doing a disservice the families. It fails the families; it fails the taxpayers; and it fails the communities that host these families.”
Families placed in motels are basically on their own, he said. Outreach workers with large caseloads try to do the best they can, but the structures to help people are not really in place at a motel, Welch said.
Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) said he is frustrated there has not been some headway made on the problem during the last year. There were 1,600 families in hotels and motels last year, and despite millions of dollars earmarked to address the issue, nothing changed, he said.
The state got away from housing people in motels during the mid-2000s, but when the recession hit in 2008 there was an explosion of families needing emergency shelter that pushed people into motels.
“We opened up the hotels and motels again, really after not learning a lesson in the early 2000s,” Knapik said. “The system was not able to respond quick enough.”
In Holyoke there are 133 families in motels; Chicopee has 109 and West Springfield has 106. Knapik argues after spending close to $75 million on the HomeBASE program, the state should have seen more progress. “Not to make any progress in a year, I think is unacceptable,” Knapik said.
“I hope whatever we do in the budget in 2013 it is going to make a dramatic improvement in these numbers,” Knapik added.
Aaron Gornstein, the undersecretary for housing and economic development, said the state does need to focus more on getting families out of hotels and motels. Both the Massachusetts Rental Voucher program and increases to the RAFT program will help, he said.
The RAFT program (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition) will also prevent thousands of families from becoming homeless, according to homeless advocates. Both the House and the Senate set aside $8.8 million for fiscal 2013, up from $260,000 in fiscal year 2012. RAFT helps families pay rent, move-in costs or back utilities to avoid homelessness.
“We are going to put these new resources to work very quickly. I do expect we will show results,” Gornstein said. “We have a great concern about families staying in hotels and motels. It is a high priority.”
Starting July 1, the HomeBASE program will give eligible families who are in shelter up to $4,000 to help move into more permanent housing. But the rental assistance part of the program is still frozen to only families already enrolled. For fiscal 2013 the House allocated $83.3 million, while the Senate budgeted $90.7 million.
Gornstein said the federal government has reduced funding for affordable housing during the past several years, leading states to pick up the burden.
“That is a big factor in trying to meet the demand,” he said.
Sen. Kenneth Donnelly (D-Arlington), who sponsored a budget amendment in the Senate to make sure eligibility requirements for emergency assistance were not restricted, said he agreed with those who argue hotels and motels are not the answer.
“We cannot disregard the fact that we are going to need emergency shelter,” Donnelly said. “We all agree permanent housing is the best option. But we cannot be in a situation where we have women and children that are on the streets, or anybody that is on the streets.”
One solution lawmakers need to look at is increasing funding for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, Donnelly and others said. The rental voucher program helps people move into permanent housing. The House funded MRVP at $46 million, while the Senate budget funded it at $42 million.
Advocates for the homeless anticipate the $46 million in the House budget for the MRVP program will help 935 families move out of motels and into more permanent housing.
Donnelly said it is an issue the state “really needs to spend some time on.”
“I don’t think we are out of this economic downturn. We need to make sure we are providing for housing,” Donnelly said.
The issue of housing families in hotels also spills in school district budgets, as communities that host homeless families in hotels are federally required, under the McKinney-Vento Act, to pay for school transportation costs without reimbursement from the state. In its version of the budget, the House included $11.3 million to reimburse communities that pay school transportation costs for families; the Senate did not include any money in its budget, instead opting to launch a study commission to look at the costs to communities.
As the budget moves to the conference committee stage, homeless advocates say their major focus will be on preserving eligibility for emergency shelter, including motels and hotels, and maximizing funding for the rental voucher program, said Kelly Turley, legislative director for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
“There are so many programs that have been cut. Housing and homelessness programs have been protected in this budget,” Turley said. “But we are very concerned that there are categories of families that won’t be able to access shelter.”