It is crunch time for Conference Committee members and for all of you to put in your calls to your elected officials and/or committee members. The Committee is charged with completing the compromised budget by next week to submit to the Governor. An EA provider letter was submitted to the committee with 27 sign-ons, regarding key issues including eligibility, time limits, shelter contracts and technical assistance. Homes for Families also submitted our recommendations. Here is the full text of the letter.
Dear Committee Members,
On behalf of our membership of shelter providers, homeless and formerly homeless families, and other stakeholders, we thank the members of both the House and Senate for your thoughtful approach in developing the FY2013 budget relative to providing services to homeless families. The funding, language proposals, amendments and debates all reinforced the dedication of our elected officials to addressing the family homelessness crisis through responsible public policy and with a dedication to assuring the safety of the poorest children of the Commonwealth. We commend your efforts and offer our recommendations as you work towards a compromised budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Attached is a spread sheet which outlines the specific line items and issues which are of greatest importance to our community.
In the spirit of the Housing First agenda, our first recommendations call for an investment in affordable housing. The lack of affordable housing in Massachusetts is well documented, and the demand has only skyrocketed due to the economic, employment and foreclosure crises. At one time,Massachusetts spent over $120 Million for state issued housing vouchers, while spending less than $40 million on family shelter. Today, these numbers are inversed, with spending on motels, short-term subsidies and other temporary fixes steadily increasing. Massachusetts clearly needs a housing reform agenda and investments in housing that poor families can afford. The Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program and Public Housing are two key programs that are pivotal in addressing the affordable housing shortage and subsequent family homelessness crisis. It is essential that there is an investment in these programs. An investment in MRVP will support the actualization of supportive housing, a priority of the Administration, and can play an essential role in stabilizing households, landlords and communities. We support targeting of the vouchers to families in the Emergency Assistance system, but recommend strategic planning, triaging and roll out of new vouchers, in coordination with family shelters and constituents.
HFF Recommendation: Funding at levels proposed by the House: 7004-9024 at $46M and 7004-9005 at $64.5 M
The Emergency Assistance Program (7004-0101) is overburdened and operating at 178% of capacity, forcing a reliance on motels to meet the moral and legal obligation to assure the safety of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children. However, random time limits and program eligibility restrictions are not the solution. Housing and prevention are the solutions. Any effort to “reform” emergency assistance will be a step backwards if the result is leaving children to survive on the streets and in cars, in foster care, in abusive and exploitative environments, and other horrific, but realistic scenarios. This will only lead to increased costs in other line items and long-term devastation for children and families. At the same time, the system cannot continue to grow and warehouse families in side-of-the-highway motels with no services, no options, and no hope.
While both proposals will limit shelter access, the Senate language seeks to protect vulnerable sub-populations of homeless families and includes important data requirements. Additionally, the Senate language encourages more focused housing search and planning for homeless families residing in motels and for families deemed long-term shelter stayers which is a more positive and effective approach to moving families quickly through the system than arbitrary time limits. In our discussions with families experiencing homelessness and shelter providers and in analysis of practice and outcomes, it is clear that an incentive-based system is more effective than a punitive one. Overcoming homelessness, housing instability and poverty is a challenging feat. Additional barriers and disincentives make the work and the challenge that much harder. As such, we discourage the inclusion of the 32 week time limit for HomeBASE, as proposed by the Senate and do not support the proposed 3 month time limit for families who go over income as proposed by the House. In these challenging times, we must not limit the use of resources or discourage families from opportunities to increase their incomes.
The Emergency Assistance program, despite its being overburdened, has many strengths. There are a variety of program types, a range of innovative service models to meet the diverse needs of families, unique employment and educational programs and partnerships, and a compassionate and dedicated workforce – a workforce that has clearly demonstrated a commitment to adapting to and developing a housing-based approach to addressing homelessness. The scattered site model has been a precursor to the Housing First philosophy. Our goal should to move towards a more flexible and housing-based emergency system, and scattered sites are the most flexible and housing-based forms of shelter. The Senate proposes language to encourage converting scattered sites to congregate models. We discourage the inclusion of this language. The focus of the DHCD and the homelessness field should be on how to use the scattered site model more efficiently to create an incentive-based system and/or to convert scattered sites into permanent housing.
Systems change and policy changes must be driven by data, outcomes, evidence-based practice, experience, logic and research. The executive summary of the Senate Ways and Means budget outlines the commitments of state government to communities, to those in need and to results. Managing the shelter system in a time of crisis and change seems an overwhelming and nearly impossible task. Technical assistance regarding the Emergency Assistance line item will support the Administration to build upon program innovation to best serve those in need and will provide an outside analysis for results, evaluation, data analysis and capacity building for the provider workforce. We encourage the inclusion, as proposed in the Senate budget, of the technical assistance language to be provided by Homes for Families, which would reflect the role that non-profit policy organizations have played in other systems.
Also, the House proposed distinct line items for the shelter and motel funding and assurance of 12 month contracts for shelter programs. Homes for Families supports this proposal, as it adheres to Chairman Brewer’s outlined commitment to fiscal discipline. Since FY2008, shelters have operated with short term contracts, some even as short as 10 days. The constant recalculating of contracts is a distraction to shelter programs and to the DHCD contract managers, whose primary responsibility is to monitor programs. Using the shelter contract allocation to pay for motels masks the escalation of the deficiency created by motel spending. More focus on motel costs and overall spending, from the legislature, will provide opportunities for better targeting of resources, course corrections to focus on better serving families to reduce the motel population.
Prevention and Diversion:
The humane and just way to reduce the demand on the family shelter system is to develop an efficient prevention program and to provide resources for families to access while moving towards housing stability. We are grateful for the proposed investments in prevention and diversion programs, such as RAFT, HomeBASE and Tenancy Preservation Program. However, we have concerns regarding an over-reliance on limited cash assistance for families with complex and long-term economic barriers to housing stability. To reiterate a previous point, overcoming homelessness, housing instability and poverty is a challenging feat. We caution the implementation of any policy that will create a greater barrier or disincentive to families struggling to achieve housing and economic stability, such as rent caps and income ceilings.
HomeBASE and RAFT targeted to lower income tiers are new initiatives, and there remain a tremendous amount of kinks, underdeveloped policies, limited data on outcomes, and lessons that are still be learned. It is, therefore, unfair to impose significant bars to accessing shelter as DHCD and its contracted program administrators’ pilot untested programs. Behind the numbers, the high costs, and anecdotes are mothers, fathers, and children who need and deserve a place to call home with access to opportunities to ensure for a better future for their families, and ultimately a better future for the Commonwealth. We must not let our policy failures destroy their fragile families and futures.
HFF Recommendations: TPP (7004-3045): fund at Senate proposal; RAFT (7004-9316): Adopt Senate version; HomeBASE (7004-0108): Adopt House language regarding shelter access and Senate language regarding rent caps and income limits
Thank you for the consideration of Homes for Families recommendations and for your time and efforts in understanding the complexities of family homelessness. The numbers and experiences of families in the system are daunting and depressing, yet we continue to believe that with the right investments, the right policies and continued focus, we can and will do better by the Commonwealth’s most distressed families. We at Homes for Families believe that housing, education and jobs are the true solutions to homelessness, and we continue to be encouraged by the both Administration and Legislature’s investments and commitments to these societal necessities.
We need the conversation and focus of our elected officials to be focused on solutions to homelessness and poverty, rather than regulating the poor, punishing the poor, and ousting poor children and families further towards the fringes of society. We have been discouraged by some of the conversations regarding EBT reform and shelter restrictions, but also inspired by these same conversations. Our intent is move systems ahead so that families and children can move ahead. It is our hope that we can all work together to create positive systems change, greater efficiencies, and stronger foundations for all children to achieve success.