Massachusetts to address emergency assistance confusion, but not through budget

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Photo: Emmanuel Huybrechts

Massachusetts’s State Senate and House of Representatives toyed with introducing language that would clear up the eligibility requirements for the state’s emergency assistance program, but ultimately they did not include the clarification in their FY 2017 budget proposal.

Massachusetts is the country’s only right-to-shelter state, meaning that through the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), the state provides emergency shelter to families—including pregnant women with no other children—who meet one of four requirements.

The first two groups that qualify for emergency assistance are those who are fleeing domestic abuse or are homeless because of a fire, flood or natural disaster. The third group includes people who are homeless because of no-fault eviction, which consists of causes such as foreclosure, condemnation or a rent lapse due to a medical condition. The final way that families can qualify for emergency assistance is by being in “a housing situation not meant for human habitation.”

This last qualifier has sparked confusion. While it is not a requirement that families spend a night in conditions unfit for human habitation, misunderstandings have resulted in just that, according to Senate Committee on Ways and Means Chair Karen Spilka.

“Unfortunately, there are cases where these eligible families have been denied shelter until they had spent a night sleeping in a car, park, bus station, hospital or other unsafe situation not meant for human habitation,” Spilka said in a statement to Spare Change News.

The DHCD declined to share estimates on how many eligible families have been turned away due to this misunderstanding. The Mary Eliza Mahoney House Emergency Family Shelter, a DHCD-funded shelter that is part of the Dimock Center, declined to comment on how this misunderstanding has impacted it and how its clarification would affect it.

The State Senate’s proposed budget included language in the emergency housing assistance line item that would clarify that families need not spend a night in these conditions in order to qualify. However, after negotiations with the State House of Representatives—which did not include this language in its budget proposal—the final joint budget headed to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk will not include the clarification.

Despite nixing the clarification, Sen. Spilka’s office says that it will be working with the DHCD to make sure that people have a better understanding of the actual qualification requirements.

Sen. Spilka’s office said that it could not comment on the Senate’s discussions with the House about the clarification. The House did not respond to requests for comment on why the clarification was not included in its original budget proposal or in the final, joint proposal.

Two major concerns surfaced around the clarification, both stemming from a possible increase in the number of families entering the emergency assistance system: cost and sending more families to be sheltered in hotels and motels.

The Senate argued that families would only be spending one extra night in the shelter system, and therefore, that additional costs would be minimal. The Baker administration, however, fears that the increase in families—and therefore, the increase in costs—would be more significant.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the clarification would not have changed eligibility.

“There is no statute or regulation that requires a family to first spend a night in one of these unfortunate situations,” Spilka said. “Rather than an expansion of eligibility, the Senate’s budget restates existing rules that ensure families legally eligible for emergency shelter are never turned away.”

Concerns also arose that if more families were entering the system, more people would be housed in hotels and motels. This practice is considered problematic because it displaces families from their communities and puts them in places not intended for long-term living—for instance, in places where they may not be able to cook easily.

The state had intended to end the practice of housing families in hotels and motels by mid-2014. While the number of families in these places has decreased, as of June 17 of this year, almost 13 percent of the 3,811 families being sheltered as part of the emergency assistance program were housed in hotels and motels, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

Despite dropping this clarification, the Senate and House’s final budget proposal allocates almost $500,000 more to the emergency assistance line item than the Senate proposal did, bringing the total up to $155,533,948. Baker will now review the proposal, and can veto certain items or sign the budget.

Reena Karasin is a freelance reporter for Spare Change News.

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