New Homeless Policy: Advocates Debate How Fast To Go

Tom Benner
Spare Change News

Under the state’s new Housing First initiative, called HomeBASE:

• Families that face homelessness and are served with HomeBASE short-term rental assistance … will pay no more than 35% of their income toward rent and utilities when they are enrolled in the program. Families could also receive assistance of up to $4,000 to avoid homelessness if they don’t need continuous rental assistance. HomeBASE assistance is capped at three continuous years.

• HomeBASE-eligible families can earn no more than 115% of the federal poverty level, but if they are successful in increasing their incomes while utilizing the program, families could earn up to 50% of area median income without being terminated from the program.

• Families utilizing HomeBASE will be assigned a stabilization worker and receive stabilization services. The program administrators will be able to subcontract with other service providers to assist with stabilization services.

• Families that seek HomeBASE assistance must be provided with temporary housing or shelter while they wait to secure an apartment.

• HomeBASE rental housing should not exceed 80% of the Fair Market Rent, with some opportunity for flexibility if that maximum rent level is a barrier to securing housing.

Source: Citizens Housing and Planning Association

Advocates Debate How Fast To Go

(Second in a three-part series on the Patrick administration’s efforts to end homelessness by 2013).

Once a shift in state homeless takes effect on Aug. 1, it is hoped there will be more success stories to tell like that of Joanna Benoit.

A year and a half ago, when Benoit moved from a battered women’s shelter in Florida to be closer to relatives in Massachusetts, she had a newborn daughter, no job, and a huge fear that she’d end up living on the streets or in a homeless shelter.

Benoit found herself couch-surfing at relatives’ while trying to find a safe place and a new start. Thanks to a federally funded rental assistance program, Benoit avoided the homeless fate she dreaded and now has an apartment in Saugus for herself and her daughter, a steady job as a waitress, and hope for the future.

“I was at my lowest ever, I mean ever,” she said. “This has totally changed my life. I’m back on my feet, I’m back at work, I’m providing for my daughter — I still need some assistance, but I’m working toward something better.”

Gov. Deval Patrick administration’s plan to change the way we deal with homelessness — focusing on prevention, diversion and rapid re-housing — follows an innovative model known as “Housing First,” which seeks to put homeless people into housing as a first step, and then get them the help and supports they need — whether it is overcoming alcohol or substance abuse, coping with mental illness, or finding a steady job — to become stable and self-sufficient.

That’s a reversal of the old “continuum of care” approach, which relied on emergency shelters and transitional housing as a first step, and emphasized that homeless people need to overcome any personal problems to demonstrate that they are “housing ready” — that is, clean and sober and responsible enough for publicly supported housing.

Patrick’s plan, first proposed in January, called for shifting some $38 million in funding for homeless programs to HomeBASE, or the Short Term Housing Transition Program, a new initiative designed to provide temporary housing for homeless families living at or below 115 percent of the poverty line. The governor’s plan would have provided up to three years of housing assistance amounting to $8,000 in the first year (or $667 per month). The funding would be used to help with rent or to cover arrearages, utility bills or security deposits. At the time, Patrick predicted the state would serve the same number of families (7,000) despite an overall lower level of funding — while fewer families would be eligible for family shelters, more families would receive assistance to stay in their current housing or find new, permanent housing.

Significantly, the plan called for limiting access to emergency shelters to three narrow categories of homeless people: families at risk of domestic abuse, families whose homes have been destroyed by a natural disaster, and families that have a head of household 21 years old or younger. All other eligible families would only be served under the new HomeBASE program to find housing; they would no longer be eligible for shelter.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, Patrick’s point man on homeless policy, said at the time the state currently spends some $30,000 a year to house a family. Shifting to a Housing First model would cost taxpayers on average less than $10,000 to stabilize the same family in an apartment or other means of assistance, Murray said. Putting over $30 million into the Housing First push, he said, would add over 6,000 new renters to the state economy and support local economies.

“Anyone that is homeless is going to be taken care of,” Murray said in a recent interview in his State House office. “If their situation is domestic violence, if someone is evicted, if there are health and code issues, if there are safety issues, they’re going to have absolutely the right to hotel/motel or a shelter if that’s what’s needed. But what we want to do is try to galvanize the system to focus on rapid rehousing, so that is the first objective and goal.” (See our next issue for a full transcript of the Spare Change News interview with Murray).

Some advocates praised the new emphasis on housing as the answer to homelessness.

“There are all kinds of creative things out there you can do that are more housing-based, that focus on pushing that person toward independence and housing,” said Joe Finn, President and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

But others had reservations about the plan, particularly the abrupt shift away from emergency shelters. Advocates for homeless families said the original proposal would have excluded too many families in need of emergency shelter and eliminated the shelter safety net, leaving many homeless families on the street. They successfully lobbied for changes in the legislation that Murray, at one point, decried in an newspaper op-ed as “leaving us with the current system in which the state is spending in excess of $160 million for homeless families to stay in motels and shelter for over a year without a guarantee of stable housing afterwards.”

The original Patrick HomeBASE plan underwent several changes once it reached the state Senate, and the final result marks a compromise.

 The plan to narrow shelter eligibility to three categories of applicants is removed. The final budget says eligibility for shelter “shall include” those who are at-risk of domestic violence in their current housing, those who are homeless due to fire or natural disaster, or those who are under the age of 21, rather than the “shall be limited to” language proposed by the Patrick plan. All other homeless families will be screened for the HomeBASE program, and eligible families will be required to accept housing or housing assistance instead of emergency shelter. If families can’t immediately find housing through HomeBASE, they “may” access a shelter.

 While the governor proposed up to three years of rental assistance starting at $8,000, the Legislature replaced that with a stipulation that families served under the program will pay no more than 35 percent of their income in rent and utilities and that HomeBASE rental assistance be kept to no higher than 80 percent of the fair market rent. Another stipulation adopted in the final version of the budget says that any temporary shelter that a family may receive while they look for permanent housing will not count towards the three years of assistance they receive through HomeBASE. Eligible families that do not use the ongoing housing assistance may qualify for up to $4,000 a year in annual cash assistance to prevent eviction or rent a new apartment and pay for utilities and other expenses.

The changes weakened Patrick’s original effort to aggressively push more homeless families into housing, as some see it.

“The advocacy community did not like narrowing the front door to anyone who might need shelter. So they fought that tooth and nail, and pretty much won that battle,” said Susanne Beaton, Director of Special Initiatives for the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation. “The goal on the governor’s side and somewhat on the House side was to drive as much of the activity to HomeBASE and away from the need to put so many families into shelter, to put them over to HomeBASE. So we have a hybrid right now, and we’ll see if you can be given a choice at the front door, which families will take (housing over shelter).”

While the HomeBASE program is a compromise in her eyes, Beaton sees it as a good first step toward shifting the emphasis of state homeless policy from emergency shelters to housing.

“If you look at the Emergency Assistance budget, it has just ballooned,” Beaton said. “The state spent between the federal stimulus and its own budget upwards of $200 million serving probably 6,000 or 7,000 families. Do the math, we could have bought people homes. But there is a strong advocacy to want to leave the emergency shelter side of the equation untouched, and that existed right through this legislative lobbying session. It’s because there’s such a strong belief system in that community that shelter is the safety net, and the theory is you can’t change anything until you prove to us that those other things are going to work.”

In addition, some see organizations that have built up around serving the homeless as potentially resistant to an initiative that is designed to ultimately put them out of business.

“Any time contracts and resources are in play, there’s going to be financial winners and losers, and that creates a challenge,” said Emily Cohen, associate director of policy and advocacy for One Family, Inc., a non-profit that pushed for the original HomeBASE initiative. “Even for an industry whose goal is to put itself out of business, it’s very hard to watch your funding source go away, especially when there’s such a need right now. We know the need for assistance for families is very high, so it is hard for providers to watch it be cut when they see a
line out their door.”

Cohen added, “I think it took quite a while to build the political will, and to build the practice around prevention and rapid rehousing. Providers needed to be convinced it worked, because nobody wants to hurt poor families in a terrible situation. Legislators needed to be convinced that this is the way to go, and I think that happened.”

However, those who pushed for changes in Patrick’s original proposal say the end result provides greater options for homeless families and protects the shelter safety net for those who need it.

“HomeBASE will provide some families with a short-term alternative to shelter, which is good. Everyone supports helping as many families as possible be in safe housing instead of in shelter,” said Ruth Bourquin of the Mass. Law Reform Institute. “But HomeBASE is designed to provide only very limited and short-term assistance and most families will need additional help once their HomeBASE benefits run out. Pretending otherwise could result in more homeless children having no safe place to go. In addition to continuing to provide a safety net, the state must do more to help families access long-term affordable housing. Only then will we be able to achieve the goal of ending family homelessness.”

When the state assigns caseworkers to families that qualify for HomeBASE housing assistance, a projected 60 cases will be assigned to each caseworker – which has advocates for homeless families worried that many will fall through the cracks.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing, said the stabilization services that newly housed families receive will be a critical factor in the success of HomeBASE.

“The support services these families get is critical,” Eldridge said. “The last thing we want is for these families to have housing for three years and then go back to the streets.”

Kelly Turley, director of legislative advocacy for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, has ongoing concerns that the state will not create enough long-term affordable housing to accommodate homeless families, and that more needs to be done to address the underlying causes of poverty.

“We haven’t seen that dramatic investment in housing that will be needed,” Turley said. “There is still time to make some of those investments.”

Still, there seems to be unanimous agreement that state homeless policy is changing for the better.

Chris Norris, executive director of the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, one of 10 regional non-profit providers contracted with the state to implement the HomeBASE program, said up to three years of rental assistance and stabilization services will allow individuals and families to find longer-term solutions such as Section 8 or public housing.

“This is only meant to be a stopgap measure as an alternative to shelter,” Norris said. “It’s not meant to be a permanent housing solution. If we can get someone into this program and over the course of the three years they then come to the top of the waiting list for Section 8 or the public housing wait list, that’s a permanent housing solution. This is a stopgap measure to prevent families from going to shelter.”

Experts say any reluctance among some to dismantle the shelter system they’ve worked to create and expand is to be expected among advocates who care deeply about their work. Still, the new emphasis on Housing First points to the future in homeless policy, they say.

“Any kind of organizational change like that is really huge,” said Donna Haig Friedman, director of the Center for Social Policy at UMass-Boston. “Repurposing organizations that have known themselves more as shelter
organizations and shifting to housing and prevention first organization is a very rough shift. Many of the service organizations have been trying to really change themselves and have been doing it in ways that are really impressive. But I don’t think any of that is easy.”

She added: “I don’t think there are any bad guys or good guys. These are really complex problems and challenges for us as a society. At any point in time there are different interest groups that are pushing or pulling one way or another, making sure that we all keep in mind the complexity and keep in mind who may be getting forgotten.”

Next: An exclusive interview with Lt. Gov. Tim Murray on the state’s new HomeBASE initiative.





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