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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Some context and charts around the Governor’s Proposal For Family Shelter in FY17

On January 27th, Governor Baker released his recommendations for the state’s operating budget as a bill to the House of Representatives.  This year, his budget proposal is referred to as the House 2 Budget.  This is the Governor’s opportunity to recommend spending levels and any changes to the language or policies directing how the funding should be spent and the programs run.

The chart below highlights a few of the key line items relative to housing and homelessness.  The remainder of this post will specifically focus on the Emergency Assistance, or family shelter, line item, which is [affectionately] known as line item 7004-0101 in the State Budget.

H2HousingLinesFY17

No changes were recommended relative to shelter eligibility or other program functioning.  However, the proposal removed all oversight and reporting language [and earmarks].  This is the language that mandates the Legislature have 60 day advance notice of regulatory changes, and that charges the Department on Housing and Community Development (DHCD) with basic data reporting requirements [like monthly and quarterly reports].  It seems to be commonplace for the Administration to remove this language [and the Legislature to put it back in].

As the chart indicates, the Governor has recommended $191, 893,513 for the Emergency Assistance Program.  This program funds over 3,500 shelter units; as well as the corresponding staff, service and operating costs; overflow capacity in motel rooms; additional diversion dollars; and some earmarked funding for plays spaces, transportation and food pilots, and technical assistance from Homes for Families. While this funding [$191M] is considerably higher than the $154M Governor Baker recommended last year – or the $155M the Legislature allocated in their final budget – it is less than the $197.9 that is projected to be spent this fiscal year.

Each year, since the state has had to rely on motels to meet the need for shelter, a supplemental budget has been required as the total dollar amount needed for motels is somewhat of a moving target.  Typically, 7004-0101 is underfunded from the start, much like the snow and ice line item, and additional funding is requested once actual demand and dollar amounts are determined.  Last week, the Governor filed a Supplemental Budget proposal with the Legislature; included was $41M for EA.

There is some logic to under-funding EA.  The goal is always to get out of motels – to increase prevention, to increase housing, to use short term resources, for the rent wage gap and other realities of inequality to disappear on the basis of good intentions and incremental policy changes – so why invest upfront? The graphic below, a newly updated version from last year, provides an answer:

TimeLineFY16

Click Picture to Enlarge

Not adequately funding EA from the start causes complications in a system that is constantly adapting to policy changes and new initiatives. Simply put, it is inefficient. It places an unnecessary administrative burden on shelter providers and staff at the Department of Housing and Community Development, and on the Legislature who have to field panicked calls from Homes for Families and shelter providers as they process the supplemental budget, which may include complicated issues that require more time than the shelter contracts have.

So, what do you think? Is this the year that we try stability for a system that is charged with supporting families to achieve housing stability?

Here is an idea – how about the Legislature re-inserts the advanced notice language, adds some more data and reporting language to better track the use of the funds and functioning of the program, and provides adequate funding? That way, the shelter providers can have 12 month contracts and the Legislature can keep a close eye on the program. The motel number is at its lowest since 2010.  The overall caseload is also down. These accomplishments could not have been made without shelter providers’ hard work to expand programs and implement and adapt to new policies and programs. So, hey, if there is money left over at the end of the year, the state can invest it in HOUSING!

LH

Taking Aim at Ending Family Homelessness in Massachusetts 

Viewpoints from Around the State: Taking Aim at Ending Family Homelessness in Massachusetts 

by Libby Hayes, featured in the Provider, a monthly newsletter from the Provider’s Council that highlights some of the biggest issues in the human services sector.

According to the 2014 report, America’s Youngest Outcasts, the number of homeless children increased by 8 percent nationally from 2012 to 2013; there were increases in the number of homeless children in 31 states and the District of Columbia. The report also states that 1 in 30 children in America are without a home.

Here in Massachusetts, the Department of Education identified 15,812 homeless students last year. Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows a 94 percent increase in the number homeless families in the Commonwealth from 2007-2014. The state’s Emergency Assistance (EA) program is currently providing shelter to approximately 4,460 families each night. We were battling the issue of homelessness before the recession hit. That issue is now an epidemic. An epidemic that can – and must – be solved.

Despite the daunting statistics above, the number of families in motels has been reduced from a high of 2,200 families in December of 2013, to fewer than 1,400 in March of 2015. This reduction is a result of a combination of efforts, including an expansion of the number of family shelter units. The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the EA shelter providers have worked to implement more efficient and specialized program models such as co-sheltering, a shelter for single fathers and enhanced services for domestic violence and substance abuse.

 Next, a pilot program was launched in July of 2014, placing EA providers in the five busiest shelter intake offices. The providers meet individually with eligible families, to explore resources and opportunities outside of the shelter system. According to DHCD data, the statewide rate of families “diverted” from shelter in January 2015 was 21 percent, a significant increase from the 5 percent diversion rate in FY ’14. At the same time, DHCD reports the total number of exits from the EA system has increased from a year-to-date total of 2,955 in January of 2014 to 3,696 year-to-date total in January of 2015.

The HomeBASE program has been a critical resource in these achievements. Investments in the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, Leading the Way Home Vouchers through the Boston Housing Authority, access to private developments through the New Lease Program, and augmented staffing in motels have all contributed the increase in the number of families exiting the shelter system. Building on these efforts will further reduce the reliance on motels and better support families to overcome homelessness.

The recently released On Solid Ground report outlines the economic context of the family homelessness epidemic – specifically exploring the issues of wage stagnation, a decline in housing production, disinvestments in family supports and fragmented public policies and programs. On Solid Ground calls for more coordination and accountability across all state agencies to better align policies and maximize resources and effectiveness.

Historically, homelessness has been looked at in one of two ways: through a human service lens or through a housing lens. We now recognize that we must look at housing as the foundation, and at human services, child care, education, labor and workforce, and health care as the materials needed to construct a future without homelessness. Resources are needed, and coordinating a holistic response requires leadership and vigilant tracking of data to evaluate progress.

Governor Baker has made family homelessness a priority issue for his administration. His FY ’16 budget proposal includes $20 million for a new End Family Homelessness Reserve Fund to be administered by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), but has also proposed further restrictions to shelter eligibility. Further restrictions are simply not tenable; already about half of the families that apply for shelter are determined ineligible; more than 600 families entered the shelter system in FY ’14 after staying in places not meant for human habitation. These are children. Blanket categorizing and excluding subpopulations of homeless families has never proven successful in the Commonwealth’s 30-year battle against family homelessness, especially compared to successful prevention and diversion models.

 Thoughtful distribution of the Reserve Fund will be needed to avoid making the system more convoluted and confusing to families in crisis. While flexible funding has proven to be a useful tool to manage homelessness more cost effectively, it cannot solve an epidemic caused by larger systemic issues: a shortage of affordable housing and wage stagnation at our lowest income levels. But a focus on housing, children and providing the necessary opportunities and resources will do more than manage homelessness – it will end it.

-Libby Hayes, Executive Director of Homes for Families

Providers Council

The Time Has Come Today…(so what will happen with EA?)

The Time Has Come Today…

..when the 7 day shelter contract extension, from the 21 day contract extension, from the 7 month contract will expire.  This article from the State House News, and heard/posted on public radio, makes is clear that everyone knows we have a serious timing issue:

When Gov. Charlie Baker urged the Legislature to act quickly on his midyear spending bill filed late last month, he likely had this very situation in mind, cautioning that there were agencies and programs with “time-sensitive” funding needs demanding action before the end of March.

 “We need the money that’s in the supp. From our perspective this is a timing issue. The shelters are not going to close. No families are in danger and we’re working diligently with the Legislature to get the money they need,” said Paul McMorrow, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

House budget leaders said Thursday they were aware of “funding timelines” for the emergency assistance family shelter program, but could not comment on whether they would consider separating the shelter funding from the budget bill to get it approved faster.

It seems like an appropriate time, to share Homes for Families’ time lines illustrating the chaotic contract lengths for family shelters:

Here is what this year is looking like so far:

fy15sheltercontract

And here is how this year fits in with recent years:

timeLineEAfy15

So, what impact does this have on shelter programs you ask?

  • Well, for starters, right now providers can’t be paid. On April 1st, rent will due to landlords that lease apartments and buildings that are used as shelter units
  • When providers can’t be paid, they may have to rely on lines of credit, which they will have to pay back with interest
  • It is extremely burdensome on finance staff to manage funds when programs are not being reimbursed, and to have to amend budgets and do unnecessary paperwork
  • Last minute contract signing is a distraction and can be complicated, especially if shelters are dealing with crises, or if authorized signers are out of the office
  • DHCD contract managers have to manage the signing, resigning, and processing, when they are also responsible for monitoring programs and other assistance to providers
  • Legislators have to deal with the sudden blitz of calls from panicked advocates and shelter providers
  • Feel free to leave a comment about the other impacts that short term contracts have on you and your programs

We are hoping, and asking, that the EA supplemental funding get separated and passed independently.  This will allow the contracts to get issued, and time for the Conference Committee the time to thoughtfully work out the other compromises between the Senate and House Bills.

We have an opportunity to stop this insanity in FY16.  We think it is about time.

LH

DHCD Provider Meeting: Updates and steps towards a solution

We are experiencing family homelessness at a rate greater than ever before in Massachusetts, but that is not to say that nothing is being done.

On Friday October 17, the Department of Housing and Community Development convened staff from shelters across the state for a Provider Meeting. Getting everyone in one room is no small feat, but that is just one of many efforts that DHCD is taking to combat the influx of families entering the shelter system.

Aaron Gornstein, Undersecretary, presented a chart on EA entries and exits that compared the first quarter of this fiscal year to the first quarter of the last fiscal year.  Here is a recreation:

dhcd chart

In addition to an update on entries and exits, they presented on highlights of FY13 and FY14- important considerations in determining the progress of eliminating homelessness.

Since FY13, the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program has assisted 2,000 families in attaining permanent housing. 4,000 families left shelter with HomeBASE house hold assistance, and 6,000 families were prevented from entering the system through RAFT. The shelter system has been expanded with over 725 beds and the FY14 goal of 1,000 supportive housing units has been reached.

These programs are recognized by our membership as FY15 priorities, and we plan to continue to advocate for them with the help of families and shelter providers throughout the state.  Here is what is planned for them so far:

MRVP

  • 1,058 new mobile vouchers
  • 350 new project based vouchers
  • Rent level increases for existing project-based vouchers

In September, Local Housing Authorities will begin issuing 892 vouchers and Regional Administering Agencies will begin issuing 166 vouchers in December. The application period for the RAA’s is open NOW through November 3, so make sure to fill one out and share with anyone who needs to get on the waiting list ASAP.

HomeBASE

  • Increased to $8000 for shelter exits and $6000 through diversions
  • Co-location of shelter provider staff in local offices to increase diversions
  • 32% of exits are through HomeBASE

RAFT

  • $1.5M increase in budget
  • Increase in households served: 557 in July-Sept of FY14 to 972 in July-Sept of FY15

YES, the shelter system is at capacity.  YES, we are in need of information to determine the effectiveness of short term subsidy programs like HomeBASE and RAFT. YES, there are rules in place that do not benefit the families, providers and the communities in which they live. And YES, there is more that we as a society, the legislature and the Administration can be doing to curb the number of families living in shelters and motels.

But that does not mean our work is in vain. The high number of families does not reflect a lack of effort, it reflects the growing gap between wages, rent and supportive services.  No matter how many families exit the system, if we are to decrease family homelessness then we need to prevent families from having to enter through addressing the root causes of poverty. We must commit to continuing to advocate for more funding, resources and supports to ensure that families have shelter,  that providers have the tools they need, and that DHCD has the resources necessary to support both.  We need to maximize on our passion, experience and the community.

And that need is recognized. DHCD called upon the providers to work in groups to brainstorm new initiatives that will help to support families in attaining permanent housing and preventing households from having to enter the system altogether. I heard a call for assessment at the front door, programs to educate landlords, intervention in the beginning of the evictions process, and an expanded supportive housing model. We also heard ideas like time limits on shelter stays, teaching providers to negotiate with landlords in housing search, and bringing back flex funds.

So we pose the same questions to you in hopes of learning new answers to bring to the table. Please read the questions below and share your ideas with us in the comment box below or on our Facebook page. Extra points if you can solve homelessness in 140 characters via our Twitter page.

1. What new initiatives are needed to make the shelter system work more effectively?

and

2. What steps can we take, and what programs will help, to prevent families from needing to enter the shelter system?

History Matters: A Reflection on the Family Homelessness System

A Reflection from Ed Chase

 Various roles at the MA Dept of Public Welfare (1983-1995) including Client Services, Housing Search Unit, Transitional Housing Demo Project, and at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (1995 – 2001) including Emergency Shelter Grants and Continuum of Care Housing and Homeless Programs.

 I have hundreds of good memories of my years working with dedicated individuals within and outside state government, and organizations like Homes for Families and the Mass Coalition for the Homeless on solutions to family homelessness and supporting the family shelter network that provides safe and supportive housing and services to families in need. Here are a few of my random thoughts:

At different points in time, working inside the bureaucracy can prove difficult, sometimes just bizarre. I remember being deposed by Barbara Sard at the old GBLS offices for a landmark lawsuit when the building fire alarm went off, thankfully ending the deposition before I said too little or too much.

I believe the times when government agencies and the contracted providers (whether shelter or housing search or prevention) act respectfully as a team and not as adversaries, great things can be accomplished. This collaboration keeps the work focused on the important goals, not the time consuming and energy draining details some bureaucrats focus on. Outside forces like negative press, administration changes, or a budget crisis can stifle creativity and really challenges us to keep working productively. Does anyone remember Finders Fees and Holding Fees? Despite negative press stories, these ideas were managed with integrity and attained measurable results.

When the number of homeless families was approaching an all time high in 1985 of maybe 500, we purchased 250 “707” (now MRVP) housing subsidies and almost overnight hired staff to issue them. Family shelter and search staff drove the families to the briefing at the old METHAP, and then placed these homeless families into permanent affordable housing, sometimes over the weekend. As the “707” line item account grew, but still significantly less than what is spent today probably on shelter alone, it came under scrutiny. Years later in a negative report on 707, my comment that 707 was successful because hundreds of families who were homeless were homeless no longer nor would they be in the future, was unfortunately in the minority.

There is also something to be said for youth and the energy and excitement that comes with the sense of mission and urgency. Whether it was staffing the hotline on Christmas Eve and calling a family shelter ready to accept a family, or organizing a toy drive and then delivering toys to the motels and shelters, or assisting at the Milner Hotel the morning after the fire (thankfully no families were hurt), young dedicated staff are a valuable asset. They also work long hours at less than desirable pay! I once had a boss in those days who told me to do something I cared about, have fun doing it and take care of those who work with and for you.

Thankfully, youth and energy turn into wisdom. I personally consider myself wiser now having been single with no children when this whole effort began. Persons of wisdom and compassion are real gifts to us all. This is a shout out to those dedicated family shelter directors and staff working away for 20, 25 or 30 years! I know many of you like Sr. Margaret Leonard as friends, and you should all be at the top the event’s Honor Role.

Although I now feel that Massachusetts is not the leader in the field it was 30 years ago, there is more expertise to support bigger picture goals. The Center for Social Policy led by the wise and energetic Donna Friedman along with congregate and scattered site family shelters are focused on housing production, education and real employment as integral parts of defeating homelessness.

As a parting word of encouragement, when  DHCD was EOCD, and EOHHS was EOHS, and DTA was DPW, DPW was symbolized as “Your” Dept of Public Welfare” by stick figures with their arms raised, not in surrender, but in success. (Much like the police officer after Big Papi’s recent grand slam.) Please keep this symbol in mind as the focus for our work ahead. My thanks to all who have contributed to help improve families’ lives the last 30 years!

Picture1

Ed Chase

Community Services

MassHousing

There are many people who are a part of this history, and there is a range of experiences that we can learn from.  We are collecting and sharing reflections to complement the event and increase our own understanding of the journey the system has taken. Please consider sharing your own observations and thoughts and/or sharing your reactions in the comment section below .  

Increasing the Effectiveness of Government’s Response to the Intersection of Homelessness, Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

We hosted a convening in June in partnership with the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness (ICHH), the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence (GCADC), the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and Jane Doe Inc.  A full report from the event is forthcoming, and we appreciated all of the great feedback and ideas for how to continue to not only strengthen the conversation, but to truly strengthen the practice and systems.

The Integration Task Force (and joint venture of the ICHH and GCADV) has released their plan to increase the effectiveness of the Government’s response to the intersection of homelessness and DV/SA in the Commonwealth. The plan can be accessed by clicking here.  We would love your comments and feedback to bring back to the task force.  Please use the comment section below and/or send your responses to lhayes@homesforfamilies.org (and/or directly to the ICHH/GCADV).

In addition, DHCD has updated their guidance to field staff regarding the verification of Domestic Violence during the EA eligibility process. This guidance is available on the DHCD website and can be accessed by clicking here.

In closing, I want to recognize the hard work that went into developing this plan and the responsiveness of DHCD in strengthening not just the conversation, but in their leadership as well.  Concerns regarding the intersection of homelessness and DV/SA have been raised by advocates, shelter and service providers and families; the plan and guidance is a clear indication that the concerns have been heard and progress is being made.  But if the convening accomplished anything, it is that families, providers and others who are working to end homelessness on every level are committed to doing so and will do whatever it takes.  The day was more than informative- it was inspiring.  It was inspiring to watch various sectors break down silos, inspiring to hear the input and feedback from passionate individuals and organizations across the state, and inspiring to feel a good (and necessary) idea turn into reality.  We know that in going forth, we must all take the responsibility of strengthening the system; it is not just up to the system, but up to all of us.