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.


Visioning Day Report 2014: Every Child Needs a Safe Place To Live; It’s Just The Right Thing

Child FB pic


The next of the recommendations contained in Homes for Families’ 2014 Visioning Day Report point toward the basic principle that EVERY CHILD NEEDS A SAFE PLACE TO CALL HOME; IT’S JUST THE RIGHT THING. Until we have developed an ample supply of housing that families can afford, and we are able to provide robust prevention and stabilization services, our state’s safety net shelter system will remain a critical tool to keep our children safe. Our specific recommendations based on the input from Visioning Day are:

  1. Implement a holistic and strength-based assessment and triage system at the “front door” of the Emergency Assistance system to maximize opportunities for diversion, placement, prevention, service deliver and rapid re-housing.
  2. Increase family-centered services in motels, shelters and for families that are doubled up or living in other precarious situations to ensure children’s safety, development and well being.

 Support services, access to shelter, children’s issues and motel services were ranked just below voucher distribution as the top priorities in the issue ballot distributed at Visioning Day. Feedback in each of the breakout groups also included themes of assessment, and support for all families- and all family members.

While Massachusetts has a moral and legal obligation to provide shelter to all families that meet the eligibility criteria, only 56% of the 11,595 applicants in fiscal year 2014 were determined to be eligible[1]. The primary function of the “front door” to the shelter system is an eligibility screening, rather than as assessment of the needs or strengths of any particular family.  Services for families are contingent on whether or not they enter the system and the particular service delivery model of the motel or shelter that they are placed in.

On Access and Triage:

An assessment based system would approach families in a more trauma informed, strength based and holistic model.  Information gleaned from an assessment process could identify opportunities, resources and family assets that may present pathways to stability outside of the shelter system. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a successful diversion program is one where services offered include, at a minimum, flexible cash resources, case management, conflict mediation, connection to mainstream services and housing search.[2]  At the same time, families entering the system could be triaged to the most appropriate placements, and/or linked with the resources they need for rapid re-housing and shorter shelter stays.  Systems across the country are implementing coordinated assessment systems.  If we embrace the diversity of program models, and maximize the services and resources across communities, Massachusetts stands poised to be a leader in this area.

But, most importantly, as assessment based shelter entry would function to ensure children’s safety.  According to DHCD’s June 2014 monthly report, 607 families entered the shelter system in FY2014 after staying in places not meant for human habitation.  We shouldn’t be, and can’t be, putting our children at such risk.  An assessment based system could also prevent situations like this.  Massachusetts was recently ranked #3 in the country for the well being of homeless children. The ranking  is, in part, due to having a plan that includes children and families.  It is time that we move past the planning and build on on the good, all the knowledge and all the strengths of families and our system.

On Services:

Increasing resources and support for family-centered services for families at all stages of housing instability is crucial. This is extremely critical for families who are housed in motels across the state and for families who are doubled-up or living in other precarious housing situations.  We know the impacts of homelessness on children- their health, their education, and emotional well being. Access to services can help mitigate the negative impacts of homelessness- and housing instability- on children.  Attendees at Visioning Day also discussed the need for access to child care, transportation, education/job training, and mental and behavioral health services- all complicated systems to navigate without an advocate.  Services, supports and opportunities can often be the determining factor as to if a family enters the shelter system, if they can utilize short term housing assistance (i.e. HomeBASE), and/or whether or not they will ever need to seek re-entry into shelter.

How do we push this agenda forward?

This is where you come in! What specific assessment tools, frameworks and diversion tactics do you see that are working? What are the barriers? What data to we have or do we need to track our successes? Who, or what entity, should be assessing families? What are the training needs of staff to successfully implement proper assessment, triage and diversion? How can triaging work in a system that is overcapacity- especially when more families are coming in than exiting? Who is responsible for providing services? How can families outside of the shelter system access the types of supports they need to move towards housing and economic stability?


[1] Commonwealth of Massachusetts Emergency Assistance Program Fiscal Year 2014 Fourth Quarter Report, Dept of Housing and Community Development, July 31, 2014
[2] National Alliance to End Family Homelessness, Closing the Front Door: Creating a Successful Diversion Program for Homeless Families,

The Long Road to Welfare Reform

Let them have shampoo!  Woah…wait! Huh?!

Let them have EBT photo cards!! Wait…why??

And the Senate votes tomorrow?

Some of you may recall our MRVP Cookie Day event in 2013 where I delayed my speech to the audience by applying lip gloss and lotion as I approached the podium. Many sat in bewilderment not realizing my intent was to create a distraction from the real purpose of the day in advocating for more MRVP resources, mimicking the distraction caused by a provision proposed to the previous year’s budget that would have banned TAFDC recipients from spending cash assistance on cosmetics, save a bar of soap.

While families continued to suffer from, as they do today, the hardships of poverty and homelessness, the advocates who work to ensure appropriate resources to move them out of these situations were busy defending a person’s right to purchase shampoo, deodorant, lotion, lip gloss, or as stated in the proposed legislation, any cosmetic product “poured, sprinkled, sprayed onto or inserted into the human body…” So, while we were trying to dedicate all of our resources to fighting for more housing resources for homeless families, this distraction forced us to spend time in defending a low-income parent’s right to purchase diaper cream for a suffering child.

This was not the beginning of welfare reform, but it was certainly a low point. Another low point came shortly after when both chambers of the Legislature thought it would be wise to require EBT photo cards for recipients of cash and/or SNAP benefits. It seems that in response to media stories highlighting the misuse of EBT benefits, the Massachusetts Legislature chose to be the only state in the country to adopt this practice.

Many would ask, what’s wrong with EBT photo cards? They cut down on fraud, waste and abuse. The simple answer is – no, they do not. And here are a few reasons why:

  • Retailers do not even look at the card – the federal government has made it clear that any retail establishment that checks the IDs of an EBT card holder must check the IDs of all those rendering electronic payment.
  • All family members have the right to access the household’s EBT benefits or designate a non household member to utilize the card on the family’s behalf.
  • Having a photo on an EBT card does not discourage a retailer who is engaging in criminal activity from being a criminal.
  • There is no evidence that suggests the benefits of implementing an EBT photo card program outweigh the costs associated with it.

Despite the list above, the MA Legislature voted overwhelmingly to implement a program that former Governor Mitt Romney eliminated due to its high costs and inability to assist in rooting out fraud. In fact, out of the 200 legislators who make up both the House of Representatives and the Senate, only 2 voted against bringing back this failed policy, Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston and Jamie Eldridge of Acton.

So, you might ask – why did they do it? And the answer is not an easy one, depending on who you ask. It seems that the Legislature had a knee jerk reaction to several media stories blasted on the airwaves after the release of two audit conducted on the Department of Transitional Assistance. Both the media and the reports suggested that fraud was rampant in the welfare system, when scrutiny of the reports and evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of households receiving assistance are doing so legitimately.

No one has suggested that welfare fraud does not exist, or that we should not invest in ensuring that precious public resources for social programs are maximized by families who are eligible to receive them and utilize them for the purpose for which they were intended.

In fact, the Legislature has increased penalties for both recipients and retailers who engage in illegal activity with public assistance benefits, but that is not what is being addressed here. The recent actions of the Legislature beg the question: what are we solving for? What goal are we trying to achieve? And how does an attempt at banning hand lotion or bringing back photos on EBT cards help us arrive there? Simply, they don’t. And yet, the saga continues.

Earlier this week a legislative conference committee released their final version of An Act to Foster Economic Independence, more infamously known as ‘welfare reform.’ While the bill would include some positive changes, such as allowing for increased education and training and loosening some asset limitations, there are still significant concerns:

  • Gives current or future administration blank check to narrow the disability standard. 4,500 disabled parents and their children would lose all benefits after two years and sooner if they can’t meet work requirements
  • Imposes job search requirements on applicants before they can qualify for childcare or transportation assistance. There is a real risk that children will be left in unsafe arrangements while parents attempt to comply with the requirements of job search.
  • Requires applicants who previously received benefits to prove compliance with a plan developed while they received benefits, perhaps years earlier, regardless of whether the plan still makes sense or was reasonable and appropriate in the first place. A lifetime bar, with no way to cure past failures, is unconscionable and fails to provide an opportunity for success.
  • Imposes work requirements on pregnant women in their last trimester, unless they have medical proof they can’t work.  Pregnant women in the last trimester are not likely to get hired for jobs and not likely to be accepted into training programs.

Tomorrow, the Senate will likely vote on the recommendations of the conference committee, and all indications point to its passage. The welfare coalition continues to advocate for NO votes on the bill, and are continuing to educate Senators on the potential harm contained in the bill. At the very least we are hoping that Senators who are concerned about the well being of children in extremely low income households will seek increased legislative consultation oversight of the implementation of these policy changes at DTA.

“Unintended consequences” is a phrase that continues to arise in the conversations around welfare reform. If you recall, the DTA’s implementation of the EBT photo cards left many without access to their benefits last December, as their cards were deactivated before receiving a replacement card with their photo on it. Currently, families are reporting that their benefits are being erroneously terminated because of bad data matches that are occurring, indicating they received income that they never did.

So while our ideal outcome would be an anonymous NO vote on this bill in the Senate tomorrow, we realize that will not happen. Yet, it is imperative that the Legislature at least seek to ensure that DTA is able to implement these policy changes while minimizing the harmful impact on children. And ultimately, we have to ask ourselves: are these changes to policy really helping us to root out fraud, waste and abuse – or is it doing more harm to children in poor families whose parents are actually “playing by the rules” and working toward economic independence?

And finally, when does it end? Will we ever get to a point where there is absolutely no fraud in the welfare system? No, as with any other system. Should we be creating opportunities to enhance program integrity and ensure that access to these programs is limited to those who are actually in need and are eligible? Absolutely! How can we move policy makers to address root causes and true solutions? And, in the meantime, how many more children living in poverty will suffer as a result of unintended consequences of policy designed around false public perception of rampant fraud and abuse?

-Diane Sullivan, Policy Director

Community Meeting Re-Cap: 6/11/2014

Thank you to those who were able to join us for our monthly community meeting on Wednesday, June 11. We had families and providers from Boston and beyond with representatives from Lowell to the South Shore. We were joined by two presenting organizations: Children’s Health Watch and Child Witness to Violence, both programs run out of Boston Medical Center.

We first heard an update on the state budget process, which is currently in conference committee where the House and Senate compromise their versions of their proposed state budget recommendations. We will soon send out an action alert, calling upon our supporters to contact their state representatives and senators asking them to support certain aspects of the proposed budgets. Please click here to view a copy of the HFF recommendations to the FY2015 budget conference committee and here for our letter.

Next, Richard Stewart provided us with information about Children’s Health Watch, a non partisan research center that monitors the impact of public policies and economic conditions on the health of young children, ages 0-4. CHW then shares its findings with legislators, partner organizations and the public in order to inform public policies and practices that seek to provide children with a healthy and successful future.

Below are some highlights from it. CHW:

  • Was started in 1998 by Dr. Deborah Frank over concerns of the impact of welfare reform on the health of children in 1996.
  • Looks at issues surrounding housing stability, food security and energy access and advocate for policies that address and alleviate economic hardships.
  • Conducts interviews with families who visit the emergency room at BMC (also have sites in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Little Rock and Minneapolis) asking about housing, food and utility access.
  • Chose this young population because they are otherwise an invisible group and are susceptible to impact on brain development.
  • Is working to identify more research points on housing insecurity (more than 2 people sleeping in one bedroom, doubled up situations, or more than 2 moves in one year).
  • Has developed a survey, assessing hunger vital signs to determine whether or not a family is food insecure.
  • Distinguishes between household food insecurity and child food insecurity (when a child goes without a meal – generally, parents will go without eating or eating less before the child is impacted by not having a meal).
  • Has published several reports on their findings:

o   Children’s Health Watch Policy Action Brief

o   Rx for Hunger: Affordable Housing

o   Healthy Families in Hard Times: Solutions for Multiple Family Hardships

o   Behind Closed Doors: The Hidden Health Impacts of Being Behind on Rent

Please click here for a copy of the power point presentation.

Finally, we were joined by Ashley Schiffmiller of the Child Witness to Violence Program that is run out of BMC. This program is offers therapeutic services to children under 8 years old who witness or are exposed to violence (about 60 % of cases referred are for domestic violence). Here are some highlights from Ashley’s presentation:

  • Their services are free and intakes are done every Wednesday at BMC, they do not do home visits
  • Anyone can make a referral for a child, but the family must be made aware that the referral is being made.
  • If a child does not meet their program criteria, they are able to make referrals to outside resources.
  • They are working on developing a new model to address the needs of children between the ages of 7-18 whose exposure to violence has to have occurred or been disclosed within the past 45 days – provides intensive, short-term services (4-8 sessions).
  • Clinicians also have time set aside to do advocacy/case management on behalf of the families they serve.
  • The goal is to ultimately stabilize the family and help the child involved feel safe by strengthening the relationship between the child and his/her caregiver.
  • They take confidentiality very seriously and keep records outside of BMC’s system
  • They provide trauma informed training to outside organizations and state agencies.

For more information on Child Witness to Violence please visit their website.

Again, thank you for coming to our community meeting, and for taking the time to read our blog post on it if you missed it.  For more information on community meetings, please contact us 617.227.4188 or email

-Diane and Becca