State Reduces Number of Homeless Families Sheltered in Motels, but Concerns Remain

The state’s emergency assistance program is celebrating a decrease in families housed in hotels and motels—a problematic practice that Gov. Charlie Baker has pledged to eradicate—but critics say that the shift has its own set of flaws.

Massachusetts is a right-to-shelter state, meaning it provides shelter to families,  including pregnant women who have no other children, if they meet a set of eligibility requirements that includes situations such as domestic violence and no-fault eviction.

The state, in meeting its legal promise to its citizens, has too many families in the system to meet the demand using shelters alone. Overflow families are ushered into hotels and motels, often isolating them from their communities. This sheltering alternative also typically leaves families without a full kitchen, as hotels and motels are not intended for long-term habitation.

Since FY13 Q4, the state has seen a 65 percent decline in families pushed into hotels and motels. As of the most recent fiscal quarter, the daily caseload for hotels and motels was 440 families, just 12 percent of those who were housed through the emergency assistance program.

“The Baker-Polito administration views the practice of housing families in hotels and motels as a human tragedy and is committed to ending the practice,” Director of Policy and Communications for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development Paul McMorrow told Spare Change News in an email. “For the past 18 months we have worked tirelessly to rehouse families living in hotels and motels … We will continue to work until all families currently sheltered in hotels and motels are in more stable shelters.”

Over the past several years, the state has added shelter beds, finding room for a daily estimate of 1,300 more families at the end of FY16 than the end of FY13.

But the decrease in hotel and motel usage cannot solely be attributed to additional shelter beds. The state has seen an increase in the usage of HomeBASE, an out-of-shelter alternative for families who qualify for emergency assistance.

HomeBASE provides families up to $4,000 to put toward housing or other essential costs. Once accepted into the emergency assistance program, families have 32 weeks to opt into HomeBASE.

HomeBASE can be appealing because families are subject to numerous rules and regulations in shelters, and the funding can help them get back on their feet in a more permanent situation. It also saves the state a significant sum—in FY13 Q4, the state saved almost $1.2 million by diverting just 59 families from the sheltering system into HomeBASE.

But critics of HomeBASE worry that $4,000 is insufficient to get families back on their feet in a state where the median monthly housing cost is over $1,300.

In FY14, 6 percent of those who qualified for emergency assistance were diverted from sheltering with HomeBASE. In FY16, that number was up to 24 percent.

Another area of concern is the number of families who are accepted into the emergency assistance program. In 2012, the state increased the stringency of the eligibility requirements, and so far, in 2016, just 48 percent of families who applied to receive help from the emergency assistance program were deemed eligible.

“In this push to drastically reduce the number of families in hotels and motels, we want to make sure that the state doesn’t try to artificially match the number of families who are eligible for shelter with how many spaces are available,” Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless’s Director of Legislative Advocacy Kelly Turley said.

Under the current eligibility requirements, families often have trouble proving that they meet one of the most common qualifications: that they have no resort other than living in a situation unfit for human habitation. As a result, some families have had to spend a night in an unsafe situation before being accepted into the emergency assistance program.

According to Turley, despite the state’s efforts to clarify that families need not spend a night in such a situation before qualifying, families are still being turned away until they do so.

In the most recent fiscal quarter, 28 percent of families who were admitted into the emergency assistance program were eligible because they were in a situation unfit for human habitation.

In order to truly reduce emergency assistance need—and therefore the number of families in hotels and motels—in a sustainable way, Turley believes the best tactic is a preemptive approach.

“Oftentimes the signs are there that a family or individual will be at risk of homelessness, but the resources don’t kick in until someone’s actually at the final stages of eviction or they’re already experiencing homelessness,” Turley said. “[It’s] really needing to have more resources before it gets to that point.”

Reena Karasin is a freelance reporter for Spare Change News.

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