REPORTS RELEASED! Family Experiences of Homelessness in Massachusetts & Evidence Based Stabilization

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


Question from the field to the field:

As shelter programs are working through converting their units to accommodate more families during this crisis, we want to encourage sharing of models, successes and challenges. We received the following question from a member, so wanted to put it out to the cyber world to get some answers and ideas:

Q: As we begin thinking about our co-sheltering experiment, we have decided that something close to a congregate staffing model, with 24/7 staff on-site or possibly very near by is the way to go. Any suggestions about  staffing models in terms of FTEs, shifts, etc. What are some best practices and approaches that work? 


That’s talkin’ scat….(and please let’s keep talking)

We’ve talked about “scattered sites” before on this blog, and I stand by my comments that Scattered Site units are the most “housing first-esque” part of the system.  I also stand by comments I have made   about the family shelter not being a “one size fits all” approach as there is range physical sites (congregates big and small, scattered site apartments, hybrid models, and motels) and a range of service delivery approaches.  The array of programs is advantageous and reflects the diversity of the families the system serves. However, the task in front of us is how to continue to develop the system to not just provide shelter and move towards a prevention and housing response- providing the right resources to the right person at the right time…but when shelter is needed that the best placement and greatest opportunities are provided for all families to achieve long term housing and economic stability and success.

Scattered site providers came together last week to discuss the concept of doubling up families in scattered sites and developing a “shared living” or “co-sheltered” model.  DHCD is strongly encouraging all scattered site providers to explore and try to shelter two families in one scattered site unit.  In many ways, this makes sense- it is cheaper; it can reduce the reliance on motels; and it is consistent with their push for families to double up (eligibility restrictions, HomeBASE household assistance uses, and as a response to HB rental assistance expiring).

Shared living and roommates is a reality for many families, especially in a high rental market and there are benefits from economic and development standpoints. At the same time- there are significant safety, logistical, and contractual concerns that must be considered.  Clearly, it is not be an option for every family…and we question if it should be an option for every program.

We raised the issue with our Consumer Advocacy Team- the response was split- a few of the parents were very against the idea- expressing concerns about being able to sleep while sharing space with a stranger, being put in an awkward position to tell on their housemates around rules if they did not feel safe; worries about past trauma, visitors, substance use and logistics. Others had shared apartments while in different shelter programs.  They felt the model provided for more independence and more of a home setting to help the transition from homelessness to housing; less chaos than a congregate with lots of families, but less isolating than a scattered site or motel.  Despite the differences in the immediate reactions, there was clear agreement, after some discussion, that an assessment would be absolutely necessary in a setting where there is no staff oversight.  There was more support for a voluntary and transitional model where families had the opportunity to get to know each other first.

Further conversations, learning, and policy adaptions are needed in order to expand the use of the shared housing scattered site model in a way which is safe and beneficial.  There are a lot of risks to this model if not done correctly.  Here are some ideas for next steps:

  • Keep the conversations going- please comment, send us your ideas, forms, program designs, questions, fears, successes etc
  • Discussions with programs that have long used this model- for example, some of the Teen Living Programs, Elizabeth Stone House, and Revision House (I think all have 24 hr staff oversight/accessibility)
  • Explore research, best practices and other information on the topic.  Here are two helpful websites: Center for American Progress and Sharing Housing
  • More engagement with families to inform the development of the model

Here are HFF’s notes from the meeting, which featured five programs that have been piloting this approach.  Crossroads was the first to place two families in one of their scattered site units, back in 2010 and now have three units .  Emmaus Inc also presented and shared their updated program descriptionCenter for Human Development implemented their shared living model to respond to the capacity needs to serve young families in western MA ; Community Cares Services and Middlesex Human Service Agency also discussed their recent conversation of one and three units, respectively.

And in closing, I would like to give a disclaimer that as the conversations get going and we all start shortening out words, and start calling individual apartment shelter units “scats”….my mind goes to jazz, so I will leave you with a video from Hoots the Owl- teaching one neighborhood how to scat…