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Danvers officials balk at busing bill for homeless students

State says it has no funds to pick up the tab for service required by US

By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / August 28, 2011

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DANVERS - In the 2009-2010 school year, Danvers schools spent $158,000 to bus 151 homeless students living in local motels to attend classes in their hometown school districts. The bill last year was $72,000 for 143 students.

The schools have budgeted $35,000 for homeless transportation costs for this school year, which opens Sept. 7.

If Selectman Gardner Trask had his way, he’d send all the bills to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which places homeless families in need of emergency housing in motels across the state.

“It’s a cost to our taxpayers,’’ Trask said last week, following a special selectmen’s meeting called to discuss homelessness in town. “The impact on our schools is a real concern . . . We aren’t being asked [to provide public services]. We’re being told by the state.’’

With traditional shelters full, the state’s housing crisis has forced a record 1,698 homeless families into motels across Massachusetts, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

Danvers is one of 35 Bay State communities where motels have contracted with the state to house homeless families. Other motels with homeless families are in Burlington, Chelmsford, Haverhill, Malden, Saugus, Tewksbury, and Woburn.

The state uses a nonprofit vendor to identify motels to house homeless families, said Robert Pulster, associate director of the Department of Housing and Community Development.

“These are placements of last resort,’’ Pulster said an interview after the Danvers meeting. “There is a network of motels across the state that have stepped up and are willing to work with [the state] to address this issue.’’

Pulster noted that federal law requires local school districts to cover transportation costs for homeless students. “That’s a federal mandate that we have to respond to, just like a city or town does. We don’t have additional resources to fund [transportation costs] to any community.’’

In Danvers, the number of homeless families living in Danvers motels has dropped from 147 as of Aug. 1 to 133 on Aug. 23, according to the state. The families have a total of 214 children, ranging from preschool to high school students, the data show.

Communities are not reimbursed for any increased demand in local services, such as schools, police, and fire. The lack of state assistance is bad public policy, Danvers officials said.

“I am very, very concerned,’’ said Selectman William Clark. “The state has essentially passed this [responsibility] to the towns.’’

Selectman Michael Powers called the state’s use of motels to house homeless families in cramped motel rooms “disgraceful . . . It’s a windfall for profiteering hotel chains.’’

The state pays an average of $80 per night per room to motel operators, Pulster said.

On July 1, it rolled out Housing First, a new homeless prevention strategy that aims to end the practice of housing people in motels, Pulster said.

Social workers meet with homeless families at motels to assess their needs and help speed up private housing placement, Pulster said.

A program called HomeBASE aims to keep families out of shelters and motels by providing a mix of rental subsidies and other financial assistance to help keep people in their homes. The program, which started Aug. 1, is being administered locally by the Lynn Housing Authority. So far, 37 families have been taken out of shelters and placed in temporary apartments, Lynn housing officials said.

Federal stimulus dollars released in 2009 helped to reduce the number of motel placements, but the numbers have since steadily risen. Nonprofits such as North Shore Community Action Programs in Peabody used the funds to help low-income people catch up on back rent or provide other housing subsidies, said Beth Hogan, the executive director.

“We have not been able to do much by way of prevention,’’ Hogan told the board. “But our goal this year is to empty out motels in Danvers.’’

The Danvers People To People Food Pantry, a private nonprofit that does not receive public funding, has strained to meet the needs of the homeless population, organizers said.

From July 18 through Aug. 18, the pantry spent $9,156 on groceries for homeless families. If that rate continues, the pantry will run out of food and money to help families, said Ellie Hersey, the pantry’s treasurer.

“I don’t know how we can continue,’’ Hersey told selectmen. “We need more money and donations of food.’’

Aside from schools, the financial impact of homeless families on town-funded services is hard to measure. Police and fire calls, most of them for medical aid and fire alarms, have not dramatically increased, officials said.

“It’s not as significant as you would think,’’ Police Chief Neil Oullette told the board.

Despite increased transportation costs, the schools have also managed the increased demand for services, said Eric Crane, School Committee chairman.

“When you get beyond the transportation piece, we have been able to weather the storm pretty well,’’ he said.

Homeless students are given a choice of where to attend school. They may either enroll in the school district where a shelter or motel is located, or they may be transported back to their hometown school district.

Federal law requires that school districts split the transportation costs if a student chooses to attend his or her home school district. “It’s meant to provide stability in their education,’’ School Superintendent Lisa Dana said, explaining the law to the board. “We do hope by transporting them that we are [helping with] that consistency.’’

So far, 35 homeless students have registered with Danvers schools for the new school year. Dana expects that figure will go up in the next two weeks. “Our numbers change day to day,’’ she said. “We expect to hear from more families.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com.