Massachusetts is home to the country’s only statewide shelter system with a legal mandate to provide immediate shelter to all families who meet the strict eligibility criteria. The Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program is administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development funded by state dollars and includes 52 distinct non-profit shelter providers. Homes for Families is dedicated to learning from the experiences and perspectives of families overcoming homelessness and family shelter community. As a part of that work, we embarked on a three year research project funded by the Oak Foundation. The research intended to look at the role and components of assessment, the range of shelter programs in Massachusetts, the experiences of families in EA shelters, and national trends and research to inform the next steps address homelessness in the Commonwealth.
Our research took place from 2014 to 2017. During this period, there were increases to the level of services in motels; an expansion of contracted shelter beds, the development of the co-shelter model; the restructuring and expansion of diversion practices; and increases to the benefit level of the HomeBASE program, and an increase in prevention funding and investments in the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program. According to statistics from the Department of Housing and Community Development from January 2014 through June 2017:
- the average daily caseload during this time period was reduced from 4,458 to 3,545, a decline of 20%
- the motel caseload declined by 98% from 2,098 families to 46
- the number of contracted shelter beds increased from 2,018 units in September 2013 to 3,682 in June of 2017, a total of 1,644 units were added, an increase of 82%
- the diversion rate increased from 5% to 21%
- 9,140 families in shelters and motels were re-housed with the HomeBASE resource
- 15,484 families received prevention assistance through the RAFT program
- Over 1,700 families in shelters and motels were re-housed with vouchers through the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program
As the numbers and graph clearly indicate this was a period of tremendous progress in addressing family homelessness, especially when family homelessness in other high cost cities continues to rise (e.g. New York City, Washington, DC). At the same time the system is still serving more than double the number of families since before the Great Recession, about half of the families that apply for shelter do not meet the eligibility criteria, and thousands more families are facing housing instability. It is imperative that the system continues to evolve to address the structural causes and individual instances of homelessness.
Our research provides a pathway forward through a series of 4 reports. Each paper examines the ongoing crisis of family homelessness through a distinct lens; however, there are clear themes shared across the series. Common themes across the four papers include:
- Structural Gaps: We must address the structural issues that have created this crisis, namely the shortage of housing and the widening gap between wages and rent. We know that housing is the foundation to stability and services and opportunities can create a pathway to success.
- Children: There must be a greater focus on children. The safety and developmental needs of children must be an integral and core component of all policies, programs, and systems addressing the needs of families without homes.
- Assessment: There must be an improved focus on conducting comprehensive, family-centered, and trauma-informed assessments. The pathway to stability and improved well-being for parents and their children begins with a solid assessment. Strengths must be identified and risks assessed, and reliable and valid measures used to effectively target service resources.
- Data: Evidence based solutions are driven by data; data is key to driving policy decisions. To craft and implement policies that will make a real difference in the lives of families experiencing homelessness, it must be accurate, reflect their voices, and capture the full range of their experiences- from shelter through stabilization. In research, practice, or policy, family input and data are required for effective outcomes.
The first paper in the series was released in March of 2015. Assessment of Families Experiencing Homelessness: A Guide for Practitioners and Policymakers takes a step back to look at what is meant by the term “assessment” and walks through tips and strategies for a meaningful assessment process. The paper highlights the critical need to include children in the assessment process and the imperative to use the data to steer policy decisions.
The second paper was released in June 2015, The Family Shelter System in Massachusetts: A snapshot of program models, service needs, promising practices, and challenges gives a general overview of the shelter programs across Massachusetts, with sections on system and family demographics, needs identified by providers and promising practices. This paper makes both programmatic and systemic recommendations, including issues around safety and program flexibility, a stronger focus on data and assessment, addressing generational poverty, cliff effects, and increasing coordination with community resources.
We are pleased to release the final two papers:
The third in the series, Family Experiences of Homelessness in Massachusetts: The Case for Family Centered Care highlights key data from a survey we administered with families in the Emergency Assistance (EA) program. The survey was developed with the guidance of the Consumer Advocacy Team (CAT), a group of parents who have experienced homelessness and severe housing instability and that are full partners in our work. Using a Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) approach, a total of 117 parents were surveyed in the Springfield and Boston areas in motels, congregate scattered sites, and co-shelters. This paper provides a glimpse into families’ experiences within the shelter system and other systems of care and makes the case for family centered care as a model to best align family needs with service delivery. Click here the summary of the data.
The final and fourth paper in the series, Evidence Based Stabilization: A Solution to Reduce Family Homelessness in Massachusetts reviews national research about families experiencing homelessness and evidence based practices across the country. The paper concludes by recommending an assessment and evidence based stabilization model be implemented across the Commonwealth.
We would like to that the authors and researchers, Dr. Carmela J. DeCandia of Artemis Associates LLC and Marvin So, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; the Department of Housing and Community Development and shelter providers for their assistance in this project; and the staff, interns, and consultants who provided great support and leadership. We give special thanks to the Consumer Advocacy Team, and to all the families that participated in the survey and ongoing work of Homes for Families.
We look forward to our continued work to ensure the voices and viewpoints of families and shelter providers are heard and understood. We must couple those efforts with data to drive positive systems change and solutions. We welcome your reactions, ideas and feedback.