Poor Planning Mars State’s Homeless Fight

By Sarah Ferris

The state’s $65.3 million HomeBase program could have prevented thousands of families from entering emergency shelter last year, if funds had not been drained months into the effort, one of Massachusetts’ nonprofit housing partners said this month.

The housing-first effort – spearheaded by Governor Deval Patrick as part of his campaign to end homelessness by 2013 – gave housing grants to low-income families looking to avoid state shelters, including motels. But three months into its budget, a flood of demand sapped HomeBase funds and cut off the program’s signature rental subsidy program.

Maura Pensak, director of client services for the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, said HomeBase would have closed emergency motels by this winter if families had continued to receive the rental assistance.

Up until October, when the rental subsidy pool drained, about 50 families per month were leaving motels with about 58 families entering motels each month, Pensak said. She believed eventually, demand would cease with the availability of rental assistance. Families received an average of $11,000 per year under this program, and were required to pay about 35 percent of their income toward rent.

“We believe that if we had been able to continue this program as it was originally conceived and implemented … eventually, we would have reached a tipping point and motels would not have filled up again,” Pensak said.

MBHP, one of eleven state groups that works directly with individuals and families, helped more than 400 families out of motels by June 30.

This left only about two dozen families in motels across the state, keeping MBHP optimistic about the program.

“We housed nearly all families who were in motels or hotels in our region,” the organization’s executive director Chris Norris said.

But after the rental subsidy program capped off in October, the motels began to fill again.

After October, families had to chose between a household assistance grant – $4,000 per year – or entering a shelter. With high rent prices looming over their heads, the majority of applications chose state shelter, with many flooding back into motels, Pensak said.

This trend is likely to continue in fiscal year 2013; even with an $18.1 million increase to HomeBase, the program is not offering rental subsidies.

So MBHP is taking a new direction this year, intensifying its homelessness prevention work. Norris said the organization plans to look at individuals and families’ point of entry into the shelter system to see who is coming in and why.

“We can’t just address one part of the situation. We can’t just house people and say that’s enough. We have to ask, ‘Who is the shelter system meant to serve?'”

A primarily preventive, rather than reactive, housing strategy could mean drastic cutes in the state’s housing spending. Norris said it costs an average of $5,600 to prevent a family from losing their residency, compared to an average of $11,000 to rehouse a family.

“The fact that it’s more expensive to house a family once they become homeless is something that is known all around in the housing field,” Norris said. “Unfortunately, what we ran up against was the reality that what the state had to spend was limited.”

“We’re concerned for fiscal year 2013, but we’re going to do our best with the $4,000 of household assistance,” Pensak said.

This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:

The MBHP is one of eleven – not six – state housing groups. Spare Change also inaccurately reported that more than 400 families left motels between October and November 2011, based on a miscommunication with MBHP. The organization helped more than 400 families as of June 30.

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