Legislative Action Day 2016: Advocates demand better funding for low-income families and homelessness prevention programs

All Photos: Alena Kuzub

Last Thursday morning, around 200 advocates, providers, and homeless people gathered at the State House’s Great Hall for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless’ Legislative Action Day 2016. The six hour event consisted of three hours of testimonies, legislative remarks, advice for lobbying legislators, and a call to declare the homelessness situation a State emergency, with the rest of the day reserved for attendants to meet with their representatives and senators.

The Day of Action aims to amend the upcoming FY2017 state budget to better fund low-income households, to expand the coverage of state aid programs, and to secure rights for the homeless.

One top priority was family homelessness, and recommendations included adjusting the language found within regulations of family emergency shelter services. Currently, the language states that families must spend 24 documented hours in an environment “unsuitable for human habitation” before qualifying for shelter. Advocates argue that families should receive better homelessness prevention measures and that no family should be denied shelter, no matter how recently they just lost their home. In FY2015, EA approved 494 families with children for services after spending one night in environments like a car, emergency room, or transit station. The first half of FY2016 saw another 273 families.

“We’re on track to having the highest number of homeless families since this policy was implemented in 2012,” said Kelly Turley of the Mass. Coalition for the Homeless. “We want to make sure the safety of children is not on the cutting room floor this year.” Governor Charlie Baker had previously tried to restrict access to EA services, but the legislature shot down his recommendations.

Rep. Marjorie Decker also noted that Gov. Baker plans to drastically reduce cash assistance grants benefits for families receiving SSI (Supplemental Security Income). While Rep. Decker says that much of the money saved from reducing those grants would be reinvested in those families by funding helpful services like transportation for childcare, she would’ve preferred Gov. Baker tried to secure the extra money first. “Can you promise me the day those families lose cash assistance that they wont endure greater suffering?” she asked. “No, they can’t promise that.”

Advocates also hope to expand access to the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition Program (RAFT) to allow more adults and adults without children apply for homelessness prevention resources, and increase the funding from $12.5 million to $18.5 million.

Another program to expand would be the Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled, and Children Program (EAEDC). As Spare Change News previously reported, the EAEDC has never seen an increase in funds since its establishment in the 1980s. Currently, the EAEDC only gives out $303.70 per month—and that’s lowered to $92.80 if you’re homeless). Advocates hope to expand this grant and remove the penalty for homelessness. The bill (HB529) would increase the grant to $428 per month. HB529 is currently in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Advocates also support the Homeless Bill of Rights (HB1129), which is now before the House Ways and Means Committee. The bill would protect their right to freely move about the city, ensure equal rights and treatment from the police and employers, and secure the right to medical care, among other rights. Other concerns, like more funding for homeless youth issues and various low-income aid programs, were explained.

Attendants also heard testimonies from individuals who struggled with homelessness or near homelessness, many of whom managed to secure housing thanks to these types of programs. Nikia Ramsey, for example, was pregnant when she was forced to leave her apartment due to a broken water pipe and moved in with her mom. HomeBASE managed to subsidize a new apartment for a few months, but it wasn’t enough to get her out of debt. Help from friends, families, and eventually securing extra aid managed to get her to a more comfortable and stable point.

“I don’t think I’d ever been so depressed or had so much anxiety,” she said. “I’m finally getting out of this predicament thanks to HomeBASE and the MRVP [Mass. Rental Voucher Program].”

Thomas Holland told the crowd that state funded halfway and three-quarter-way houses helped him beat his heroin addiction and get out of homelessness. While in recovery, he managed to land a job at a local restaurant, and formed a partnership there that eventually resulted in his own business in the North Shore. He’s even a father now. He owes it all to state funded treatment, he says. However, “my understanding is that it’s not quite as easy anymore… Ending homelessness is not just about getting housing, it’s about mental health services, it’s about addiction services, it’s about teaching us how tot live.”

The Coalition also celebrated the work of the Advocacy Network to End Family Homeless, handing a commemorative plaque to its convener, Frank Austin.

Many politicians were also in attendance. Representative James O’Day, the official host for the day and a sponsor or co-sponsor for many of the bills discussed, thanked the crowd for their turnout. He also discussed the $2 million budget for homeless youth turnout, and told the crowd the next goal was “to put it to use” and fight for more funding down the road.

While advancements in helping homeless youth were celebrated, there was a consistent current of frustration for many speakers, and from some audience members. Monique Schersinger interrupted Senator Linda Doreen Forry’s speech to voice her issues with the system. She recently lost her housing after her husband died, and said Sen. Forry’s office ignored her call for assistance. Sen Forry promised to connect Schersinger with a lawyer, and agreed that “there is something wrong with this system.”

“We need to hold our agencies accountable,” said Sen. Forry.

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