We’ve said it before and we will say it again. Massachusetts is facing the biggest family homelessness crisis in the history of the Commonwealth. The family shelter system was procured in 2009 for 2,023 families and is now serving over 4,500. The motel census reached a high in December of 2013 with over 2,240 families. Today (May 20, 2014), that number is 1,876. The reduction of families in motels can be attributed to four primary factors:
- the issuance of MRVP housing vouchers; 500 MRVP vouchers were targeted to the longest term shelter stayers during Fy14. While this number is almost insignificant when compared to the number of families in the system, the exits provided enough movement to restructure scattered site units to house more families and provided housing assistance to families with barriers;
- the expansion of contracted shelter units; an additional 650 shelter units have been added on this fiscal year. Providers and DHCD worked together to add capacity that would ensure a higher level of service to families;
- the dedication, hard work and partnerships between parents, providers and policy makers; better communication and more collaboration between all stakeholders, and an unyielding dedication to ending homelessness, has resulted in policy changes, new program models, transitioning over 5,000 families off of HomeBASE;
- and use flexible use of the HomeBASE resource- including the increase in the per-family spending cap. Waivers to the 12 month bar and an increase in the HomeBASE stipend amount has resulted in an increase in exits from shelter and motels
There is a shared concern about the over reliance on motels as a response to the homelessness crisis. Long term motel stays are inhumane– the short and long term impacts on children and their families is unjustifiable…especially in a nation- and a state- as wealthy as the United States and the Commonwealth. We know, and the media has highlighted (again and again), the breadth of concerns- impacts on mental and physical health and development; serious safety risks; fiscal impacts on the state, cities and towns; logistical impossibilities; lack of services, and the list goes on. Even the good motels- healthy conditions, near transportation, community support, access to food and/or cooking facilities, a baseline of services- are only acceptable living situations for so long. Everyone, I think, agrees that motels are not the solution to homelessness. And undoubtedly, everyone agrees that we do not want children living on the streets of the Commonwealth– so just shutting motels down is not a solution, or even an option.
The solution is housing. The solution is education and jobs. The solution is access to meaningful services. The solution is prevention. The solution is a comprehensive and individualized response to housing emergencies and a range of housing alternatives to meet the needs of sub-populations of low income households. Simple, right? The problem is that we don’t have all of these things (yet).
The Senate proposed a significant investment in MRVP. Our collective advocacy has made a difference and the program is taking a step towards restoration (remember it was once funded at over $120M!) However, even if all the vouchers were targeted to homeless families, it would not be enough.
*based on FY13 DHCD caseload data and projected number of vouchers
proposed in the Senate Ways and Means Budget
But to make matters more complicated, the Senate language precludes the targeting of mobile MRVP directly to families in the EA program and proposes wait-lists be used or established (families in the EA program on the wait-lists will be eligible, assuming they meet other eligibility standards and project based vouchers are not limited by the budget language). So while the investment will help to address the HOUSING CRISIS– the fact that we do not have enough affordable housing to meet the needs of the citizens of the Commonwealth- it will not make a significant impact in our HOMELESSNESS CRISIS.
The increased cap and flexibility in HomeBASE is provides resources for some families- but the gap in wages and rent remains too vast for it to be a long term answer for most; and the social/familial networks of many families in the system simply are not there or are not resourced enough to provide even short term solutions. Even prevention is temporary without significant and sustainable increases in income or access to a subsidy.
We want to continue to build on the momentum and reduce reliance on motels. Even if the system can’t shut them all down, the length of stay must be shorter. The problem is that we don’t have enough of the solutions, and turning our backs is not- and could never be- an option.
We are not changing our name…we will never be “Shelters for Families”. We believe in ending homelessness and we believe in HOMES FOR FAMILIES- not just as our name, but as a human right. And we believe that together, with more advocacy, more community support, with more of the family voice demanding what they NEED, and more holding of Government officials accountable through voting and civic engagement- we will get there. But, we also believe in doing better for families…and until we get enough of the solutions, we need more shelter units. A reasonable number. This is why we support the Lovely amendment, #412 and think you should too.