No one can argue with the good intentions behind HomeBASE, the centerpiece of the Patrick administration’s “housing first” approach to homelessness. The idea is to move the homeless out of emergency shelters — and costly state-subsidized hotel and motel rooms, which are used in the frequent event that shelters are full — and into permanent housing. The newly housed are to be 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.
That’s a sound policy goal, but the devil is in the details. The HomeBASE program took effect last Aug. 1, and as it enters its second year, remains a work in progress.
Designed as an emergency assistance program, HomeBASE quickly turned into a housing voucher program for the broader population, opening the doors to anyone with substandard housing to apply for assistance. Applications were so numerous that in a few months, the rental assistance part of the program had to be frozen to families already enrolled. It became clear that HomeBASE alone was not going to solve the problem of homelessness in Massachusetts.
The state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 continues to stress housing over shelters, this time by denying low-income families access to shelter unless they meet certain criteria. Shelter eligibility will be limited to Massachusetts residents who meet income limits and one of four criteria — domestic violence, unsafe living conditions, natural disaster such as fire or flood, or no-fault eviction. Advocates for the homeless worry that the new restrictions will leave families out in the streets, sleeping in cars, or doubled-up in substandard housing. They also question whether the additional housing resources included in the budget will be sufficient to help families to remain in housing on a permanent basis.
The Patrick administration points to alternative prevention/re-housing programs that help to fill the void, including the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program and the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program for families, and the Home and Healthy for Good for chronically homeless individuals.
Even so, the numbers of homeless families and individuals remain as high as ever, and it is clear that not enough is being done. Cash-strapped state budget writers say the federal government should be doing more, but homelessness remains way down on the list of things dominating the national political discourse.
A housing response to homelessness remains a more dignified solution to shelter, helping families to stabilize themselves in their own communities and requiring steps toward self-sufficiency. Getting people into housing and breaking the cycle of homelessness remain important goals.
Still, the demand for housing assistance points to the ongoing need for more affordable housing in Massachusetts, and underscores the lack of urgency at the state and federal levels. Additionally, workforce training and educational programs that help Massachusetts residents to find jobs and reach economic independence remain as important as ever.