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Homeless use of motels still on rise

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / September 16, 2009

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The number of homeless families living in motels funded by the state now tops more than 1,000, a dramatic 37 percent increase since June 1, a top official for the state Department of Housing and Community Development said yesterday.

Tina Brooks, undersecretary of the department, said 1,010 families - including more than 1,400 children - are now living in motels, at a monthly cost of about $2.8 million for taxpayers.

“It’s a huge strain,’’ said Brooks after a hearing of the joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.

Brooks spoke to the committee to detail the transfer of the state’s family and individual emergency shelter system from the Department of Transitional Assistance to the housing department. The July 1 change was approved this year to help the state focus on housing solutions for the homeless.

The recession, high unemployment, and continuing foreclosure crisis are forcing more families to seek help. The state has been placing families in motels since 2007, when the 2,000 rooms in the homeless shelter system reached capacity.

Robyn Frost, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said her office is receiving a flood of calls for help from desperate families seeking shelter and often her only option is to recommend they live in motels funded by the state. Frost said it’s not ideal because motels aren’t equipped to take care of families long-term.

Despite an increase in resources for the homeless, she said, the need is too great and many people don’t fit into criteria for aid. For example, she had to tell a mother that she couldn’t qualify for shelter because she owns a car. She’ll likely be sleeping in the vehicle with her teenage daughter, Frost said.

“We need to keep the safety net, as vulnerable as it is,’’ said Frost.

In an effort to quickly move families out of state-funded shelters, the housing department started an emergency program in late July to provide rental assistance to families who need help for up to 12 months. Brooks said 352 families received help in the program’s first month, at a cost of $850,000. She said this is a better use of money than putting them in shelters, where families live an average of eight months at a cost of $24,000 per family.

The state also is working with property management companies to find vacant units in private developments to house homeless families and is working with community agencies to expand their involvement to help the homeless.

The state is looking forward to $44.5 million in federal stimulus funds, to be made available next month, to help the homeless.

“We are very early into this, and it is a very serious, complicated project we are taking on,’’ Brooks told the committee. “It is debilitating for children to be in a shelter for a long period of time.’’

Jenifer McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.