No Room in the Inn

Since the 1980s, motels have been the place where homeless families with nowhere to turn have been placed. When the state’s emergency shelter system hits capacity, the motels have served to house struggling families and individuals.

These motel stints are paid for by taxpayers (nearly $45 million total in the 2012). While nearly everyone involved in the issue of homelessness in Boston agrees that motels are not necessarily the best option for the homeless, many feel that eliminating the motel safety net will leave many with nowhere to go. The state is aiming to eliminate the motel program by June of 2014.

Speaking with Arthur Jemison, Deputy Undersecretary with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, he made clear that housing families in motels is not an adequate means of sheltering this population.

“Hotels are not good places for children and families to live. Hotels lack cooking facilities, play spaces for children, and are often not easily accessible. We’d rather focus efforts on homelessness prevention and also on moving families out of shelter and into permanent affordable housing,” Jemison said.

Jemison believes the Patrick-Murray administration has made major strides in the fight against homelessness, and states the state has maintained one of the best systems in the country for emergency shelter.
“The Patrick-Murray administration is making the most significant state investments in affordable housing and homelessness prevention since the 1980s including the RAFT homelessness prevention program; the creation of thousands of units of affordable housing for families, new rental assistance to help families pay rent; and financial assistance to help families avoid shelter and leave shelter while at the same time maintaining one of the country’s strongest emergency safety nets.”
RAFT refers to the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program. The Patrick-Murray administration has increased the RAFT program budget from $276,000 to $8,760,000. The program is targeted to families with extremely low income who are likely to become homeless without assistance.  
 Jemison also cited the Home Base and Massachusetts Rental Voucher programs as positive steps towards a better system of transitioning homeless families out of shelters and into permanent housing:
“So far this year, 1,345 families have received assistance through our RAFT program, another 1,756 families have been approved for RAFT, and 1,110 families have benefited from the HomeBASE program. These investments are the next step in the Commonwealth’s shift to a “housing first” approach, which studies show is the most effective way to reduce long-term homelessness,” said Jemison.
But many are concerned that the removal of the safety net created by the motels will leave increasing numbers of families and individuals without options. Last summer, the state changed eligibility pre-requisites as a response to the rapidly rising number of families in need of shelter.
Only families at a certain income level now qualify for the emergency shelter system. Furthermore, they must meet one out of four of the following: proving they were victims of a natural disaster; domestic violence; or that their family is in danger due to health and safety issues. In response, as Jemison mentioned, the state has pumped more money into programs that work to prevent families from becoming homeless in the first place.
Sue Beaton, Director of Special Initiatives at the Fireman’s Foundation in Boston, stated that the problem of eligibility for families has always existed and is a difficult problem to deal with.
“Families are being turned away because they are not eligible, but that has always happened. There is not a lot to do for the non-eligible families. The drive is to help those families that don’t qualify, and that is tough.”

The Fireman’s Foundation is a family foundation that dedicates a major share of its funding resources to ending family homelessness in the Commonwealth and beyond. The company was created by Paul Fireman, former CEO of Reebok International, and his wife Phyllis, after Reebok became a public company in 1985.

Beaton believes that the state is taking positive steps to solve the problem, but that difficult choices need to be made along that road to progress.

“The state is trying to go in the right direction on an incremental level. The Governor and Lieutenant governor are moving families out of motels and use that money elsewhere. Sometimes tough choices need to be made to get to where you want to go.”

Only time will tell what impact the elimination of the motel system will have on some of Massachusetts’ most downtrodden citizens. It is up to the state to use the resources currently allocated to the motels in a way that makes major progress towards the prevention of homelessness and the movement to a housing-based model of addressing the issue.

—Liam Cunningham

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