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New approach to emergency housing urged

Costly ‘1 size fits all’ system doesn’t work, nonprofit says

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / May 11, 2010

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A Boston nonprofit focused on ending homelessness is launching a campaign today to push the state Legislature to limit the amount of time families live in emergency shelters and free up funding to help them move to permanent homes.

The Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation said it is releasing a paper, “Ending Family Homelessness in Massachusetts,’’ to ignite discussion about the state’s policy to house eligible needy families in emergency shelters.

Currently about 2,800 families are in such housing, including 819 in 38 motels, at a cost of $80 to $114 a night.

Deborah Fung, the foundation’s executive director, said money spent on emergency shelter — about $150 million this year — can be better used to help at-risk families receive short-term aid, such as money to pay for a heating bill or temporary rental assistance, at an average cost of about $9,000 a year.

Currently, families spend an average of eight months in emergency shelter at a price of about $30,000 each, the report said.

“We have families stuck in shelter, stuck in motels, stuck in state-funded apartments because there are no flexible dollars to move them on,’’ said Fung.

The foundation’s paper focuses on the state’s Emergency Assistance Program, which provides shelter for families that have assets of less than $2,500 and monthly gross incomes of under $2,114 for a family of four.

The number of homeless families in Massachusetts has surged since 2007 because of the foreclosure crisis and economic downturn, filling the state’s 2,000 shelter beds and forcing some families to move into motels.

Tina Brooks, undersecretary of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, lauded the report. This is a crucial time to reform the state’s bloated shelter system, Brooks said, given the availability of federal stimulus money meant to prevent homelessness and pilot programs already in place to help at-risk families avoid homelessness.

The state had to supplement by $60 million the $91.6 million allotted for emergency assistance in fiscal year 2010 to deal with the growing number of families in need.

“We should be able to offer different responses to different households instead of offering everybody a $40,000 shelter benefit,’’ Brooks said, referring to the cost of housing a family for a full year.

Dennis P. Culhane, the paper’s author and a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said a key recommendation is to create flexible eligibility criteria for help rather than what he calls a “one size fits all’’ policy of temporary shelter.

For example, some may actually need shelter while others may require a short-term subsidy or help negotiating family issues so they can remain in their current residence, Culhane said.

The paper also says the state should require shelters to provide an “exit plan’’ to limit the amount of time families stay in temporary housing. The intent is to encourage more efficient use of taxpayer money by pressuring providers to assist families in finding permanent homes.

Over the past 10 years, emergency shelter funding has increased as housing subsidies have declined, the report says.

“All this money is spent in hotels and motels at very large expense when it could be used to help people to locate, move into, and even pay for their apartments for one or two years,’’ said Culhane, who worked as a consultant for the state for four years. “The current legislation maintains homelessness, it doesn’t solve it.’’

The cochairs of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing — State Senator Susan Tucker, Democrat of Andover, and Representative Kevin Honan, Democrat of Brighton — were not available for comment yesterday.

Dennis Carman, chief executive of the United Way of Greater Plymouth County, said housing advocates need to start thinking differently about how to aid homeless families as the economy slowly recovers.

“It is expensive to provide families with services within the context of emergency shelter,’’ Carman said. “The system has to change.’’

The Fireman foundation was established by Paul Fireman, former chief executive of Reebok International, and his wife, Phyllis, after the company went public in 1985.

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