With nearly 4,500 homeless families throughout the Commonwealth, officials are taking action to amend the system and help them find housing and shelter. At the moment, a bill is making its way through the State House that would ease access to emergency shelters and childcare vouchers.
One of the biggest changes that the bill would address is the elimination of the requirement that families have to spend one night homeless before applying for housing assistance services. Additionally, MassLive points out that the bill would provide families with childcare vouchers for six months after they leave an emergency shelter. It would require MassHealth to provide transportation from emergency shelters to medical facilities for children under 19 years of age and would require state agencies to conduct more outreach activities as part of their food assistance programs. Currently, there is no date for voting on the bill.
Advocates have voiced support for the bill, hoping it will not only increase access to services but also provide families with help much earlier and quicker than the current system. “We wait until families are over the cliff before helping them,” said Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families. “We need to help families sooner,” she added.
The joint committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities held a hearing on the bill on October 20th, about one month after lawmakers rejected Governor Baker’s proposed plan to reduce the eligibility of participants applying for housing assistance. Baker’s proposal would have prevented 40 percent of homeless families from applying for assistance, including people in irregular overnight sleeping situations, people constantly moving from location to location, and people living in places deemed unfit for human habitation.
That said, Baker also wanted to give another $5 million to housing prevention services and claimed that many families would qualify for help under other services, including families and individuals escaping domestic violence. Nevertheless, Baker, facing a backlash from advocates and lawmakers, left the provision out of the current bill.
Hayes called Baker’s failed provision frustrating and confusing, especially as there was so much momentum for easing restrictions. In fact, Hayes argues that easing eligibility could reduce costs in the long run, especially if it allows families to seek help earlier. That way they can seek alternatives to shelters before losing their homes.
The bill’s main sponsor, State Rep. Jay Livingstone of Boston, also hopes to cut costs. As he explained to MassLive, combining the application procedure for Mass Health and SNAP would eliminate the need for two different agencies to verify one person’s eligibility.
Despite the fact that Baker’s provision was left out of the bill, advocates likes Hayes have praised Baker for prioritizing family homelessness. Hayes also notes that there has been a reduction in the number of homeless families statewide. As The Boston Globe pointed out, the number of families staying in motels dropped from 1,500 in January to 1,259 in September this year. The motel room stays are paid for by the state government and cost $106 a night.
Last month, 3,233 families were living in shelters. Sometimes families find themselves in rougher spots than shelters and motels, having to sleep in public spaces or in emergency rooms. As the cold winter approaches, state officials all agree that they have to do something, even if they don’t completely agree on the methods.
“We don’t want children sleeping in cars or on park benches or in emergency rooms because there’s no home for them to go to,” Senate President Stan Rosenberg told The Boston Herald. “That said, I think we’re all in agreement about everything else, which is we want to get people out of the hotels, we want them in permanent housing, and we have to work together to come up with the strategies and the resources to be able to support that.”
“We have to do something different,” Hayes said. “We can’t put the onus on families who are currently burdened by [homelessness]… The crisis is big.”