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

 

http://www.mass.gov/hed/docs/dhcd/hs/ea/eamonthlyreport.pdf

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.

LH

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#BackToSchool Homework Assignment: Think about the 19,515 students that were identified as homeless last school year

Despite the summer weather, we can feel the buzz of the Commonwealth gearing up for another year – parents buying school supplies; teachers setting up classrooms; first day of school pictures being posted on facebook; figuring out bus schedules and stops, carpools, riding the T, and safest walking routes; uniforms, clothes and shoes; fresh haircuts; first day jitters; and new friends, new routines, new teachers.

But as this headline recently pointed out, thousands of children are “shouldering more than backpacks.”  Last academic year the Massachusetts Department of Education identified 19,515 children who were shouldering homelessness along with the homework in their backpacks. Here is the breakdown by grade:

201415SchoolYear

 

This trend, unfortunately, is not getting better.  As the graph below shows, we have seen a steady increase of students identified as homeless in recent years.

studentsperyear

Source: MA DOE

Digression

This data does not include college students, which in MA, is something we must also consider.  Not only because of the number of colleges, but also the job market and competition that results from both. The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently put out a brief and the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted one mom shouldering college and homelessness.

 

Back to the subject at hand: the 19,515 school aged students who were homeless last year and the potential 20,000 that may face homelessness this year.  Here is a list of links, information and thoughts:

  1. Children who are homeless have special right per the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Act of 1987 
  2. The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty put together this FAQ on the act. It is an oldie and wonky, but the facts remain the same.
  3. Here is a link to the Massachusetts Department of Education’s page regarding McKinney-Vento,   complete with contact lists, regulations, data, power points and more
  4. Of note, there has been one significant clarification made this school year: the US Department of Education only considers a student’s school of origin rather than their district of origin relative to the enforcement of the McKinney-Vento law. Massachusetts officials previously interpreted the law to mean the district (IE town or school system) of origin but the Feds have issued guidance that MA officials can only enforce that children can remain in their physical school of origin if they are forced to move out of their community by homelessness.  In other words, if a child has been promoted from elementary school to middle school, s/he does not have a school of origin and must begin the new school year in the town where the student resides, not where they lived prior to becoming homeless. Same goes for students graduating from middle school to high school who may be in a shelter or motel in a new community.  All other protections regarding enrollment remain.  A school can allow the student to attend school in the district of origin, but cannot be reimbursed for transportation per the US Dept of Education under the McKinney-Vento Law. 
  5. This series and video, Trying to Live, Trying to Learn is from last year and from Denver, but it is a great piece of journalism and is about the same challenges we face in Massachusetts.
  6. Homes for Families (on our own and in partnership with Project Hope) has done trainings for teachers, corps members, teaching students and visited with students in elementary and high school classrooms. We are always up for talking about homeless, awareness and solutions. Contact us if you are interested in learning more.
  7. Massachusetts ranks as the best state in America for our education system. We have an obligation to educate children who are facing homelessness, to provide supports and to track outcomes.
  8. We also have an obligation to advocate for solutions; 19,515 is a number that is unacceptable. Not because of the cost of transporting children. It is simply unjust and wrong.  In a state as wealthy as ours, as compassionate as ours, and as smart as ours – we must work together to #BendTheTrend.  We can not watch the number continue to increase.
  9. If we are serious about ending homelessness, as a society, we must start with the children

Most lists end at number 10, not 9  But final thoughts are being left to you.  What should be added?

 

LH

The State of Homelessness: Where Massachusetts Stands

Recently, there have been an increase of articles that state there has been a decrease in homelessness. 

On May 27, 2014, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released their annual State of Homelessness Report, and the information inside helps us to break apart that statement. Their data comes from the point-in-time count- a national initiative to understand homelessness and the only measure that captures unsheltered people experiencing homelessness.

This document analyzes homelessness at a national level, you know, the one where homelessness has decreased by 3.7%, but also breaks down state data. In 2013, 31 states saw a decrease in people experiencing homelessness, but 20 states saw an increase.  Guess which category Massachusetts falls into?

If you guessed “increase”, you guessed right. Despite state and local initiatives to end homelessness, Massachusetts experienced an 8.7% increase among the overall homeless population. We saw a 17.7% increase in the unsheltered population, an 8.3% increase in the sheltered population, a 6.4% increase in individuals, a 10% increase in persons in family households, an 11.3% increase in family households, a 6.1% increase among veterans, and a 5.1 % increase in individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.

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Homelessness is often the result of many failed systems- poverty, unemployment, housing costs, and living costs are all reasons for homelessness; one or more hiccups in any of those arenas can leave a person scrambling for their next option, and when there is no next option, homelessness is the result.

If we want to solve homelessness, we have to look at these systems.  Lucky for us, the National Alliance to End Homelessness makes it easy:

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So when we hear the phrase “Homelessness is decreasing!” we are thankful.  Thankful for the cities who are making progress in curbing their homeless numbers and offering practices that work, thankful for the organizations who are applying individualized services to get desired results, and thankful for the people and families who fight every day to achieve the American dream of obtaining permanent housing.

When we hear the phrase “Homelessness is decreasing!” we are hesitant, but hopeful. There has been a movement towards Housing First- getting people out of shelter and into permanent housing- but until the need for entering shelter is curbed, the crisis cannot be solved. Low minimum wage, inability to find a job, paying more than 50% of your paycheck towards housing costs, expensive childcare and the severe lack of affordable housing are far greater than the overwhelmed shelter system.

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When we hear the phrase “Homelessness is decreasing!” we know that one day we will be saying the same thing, and until that day comes, we will be educating, we will be empowering, we will be organizing and we will be advocating for holistic and permanent housing solutions to the very unnecessary problem of homelessness. And what’s more, we will be winning this fight. 

 

-jme