State’s new aim: no homeless in motels
More than 1,600 homeless families live in motel rooms today across Massachusetts, including 284 in the suburbs south of Boston. But come Aug. 1, reforms included in the new state budget could help lead many of those families, as well as several thousand others living in shelters, back to homes of their own.
By reallocating existing funding, state officials say they plan to hire more than 100 social workers, housing specialists, and others to implement HomeBASE, a new plan to get all families out of motels by July 2012 while saving significantly on emergency shelter services in the process.
South of Boston, there are 25 families living in motels in Braintree, 154 in Brockton, three in Marshfield, 27 in Middleborough, eight in Norton, 16 in Quincy, 14 in Wareham, and 37 in Weymouth.
There weren’t any homeless families living in motels as recently as fiscal 2007, according to a June report in the Globe. Then came the recession, and the number has reached 1,652 families statewide - and climbing, officials said.
Families are put up in motels when shelters for the homeless are full.
The new initiative championed by Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray, chairman of the state’s Interagency Council on Homelessness and Housing, will peel $38.6 million from the state’s $159 million in emergency assistance funds for cash subsidies for long-term housing. Another $22.6 million of the total has been cut in an attempt at savings.
Advocates say they think that much of the new program seems helpful, but that a cut of millions of dollars is a major loss of funds for homeless families and is likely to result in fewer services.
“Giving someone a key is a way for them to start rebuilding their lives,’’ said John Yazwinski, executive director of Father Bill’s & MainSpring, a Quincy- and Brockton-based agency that offers shelter and low-cost, permanent housing options.
“It’s the idea that a child won’t be labeled homeless,’’ he said. “That a parent has a better chance of getting employment.’’
Up to now, the state has worked to manage homelessness, meaning keeping up with the need for shelter, but not moving beyond that effort to get to the root of the problem and resolve it. With the changes, it will be more proactive.
But while the new plan is a start, Yazwinski said it may be difficult to implement for best results since rental subsidies must be no more than 80 percent of the fair-market rent in a community. Because of that, landlords will have to agree to accept some 20 percent less money than their apartments are worth, and many may not be willing, or able, to comply.
HomeBASE is set to provide monthly subsidies for those who qualify, capped at $8,000 the first year. Families will be required to contribute up to 35 percent of their own income toward housing costs. The three-year program will be facilitated by 10 regional networks of public and private organizations across the state.
It costs the state $36,000 a year to house one family in a motel, Yazwinski said, but a housing model his agency has implemented at fair market prices over the past few years has moved 150 families into low-cost homes for about $20,000 each.
In an interview, Murray said the new model offers flexible solutions that could be tailored to each family’s needs. “We think it makes a lot more sense than some of our responses to homelessness’’ before the overhaul “that had been formulaic,’’ he said. Now, instead of sending all homeless people to shelters or motels, steps will be taken to help them rediscover employment and independence.
At the nonprofit Brockton Interfaith Community, which works with thousands of residents facing foreclosures and also partners with agencies like Father Bill’s & MainSpring to assist those who are already homeless, director Janine Carreiro said she was cautiously optimistic about the new plan, but said cuts in funding are never good.
The state pays about $80 a night for a family to stay in one motel room, she said.
“They are living in bad conditions, the kids aren’t healthy, and they are going to school hungry,’’ she said.
Massachusetts needs to work smarter, not harder, she said. “The conversations are always about where to take the money from, not where it should go,’’ she said. “They should take the first six months to put this into effect and evaluate and, if it does work, step back and put the funding they cut back into it [anyway].
Still, Yazwinski said, any forward motion to help is good.
“I really give credit to this administration, because we have to try different strategies to end homelessness,’’ he said. “There needs to be a long-range conversion strategy, and this is year one of that.’’
Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.