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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Following the Amendments on malegislature.gov

The House Committee on Ways and Means released their budget proposal on Monday, April 10th, a change from the typical Wednesday release to accommodate for Good Friday. Representatives had until 5pm on Thursday to add amendments to the $40.3Billion spending proposal.  Amendments can add additional funding and change line item language. Amendments must be filed by at least one representative, and others can add their name as co-sponsors after the amendment has been filed.  Historically, representatives co-sponsored an amendment by signing their names next to the corresponding number in a book in the clerk’s office with a quill pen.

Advocates and others would have to go to the clerk’s office at the State House and ask to see “the book” to see who had signed on. Now, legislators can use the “quill” feature on an online system that we can all track. Technology makes the process much more transparent.

The Massachusetts Legislature’s website had a bit of a face lift since last budget season. This blog post gives an overview of how to navigate the website so that you can read the various amendments, see what amendments your representative filed, and check to see if your State Representative is supporting the Budget Amendments that are important to you.

Step 1. Go to https://malegislature.gov/

Step 2. Go to the House Debate Page

Step 3. Use the Filter

When you enter your search terms, don’t forget to click the “filter” icon; use the “clear filter” feature to start a new search.  

Search Tips

  • If you don’t know who your State Representative is, click here
  • Housing programs all are listed with line item number 7004-
  • Line items we follow are: MRVP (7004-9024); Emergency Shelter (7004-0101); and HomeBASE (7004-0108)
  • Key words include: homeless, housing, voucher…

Step 4: Find your Amendment(s)

Step 5: Review the Amendment

Amendment #780 is an example of a funding amendment; striking the budget amount of $100M for MRVP and inserting $120M.

Click here to read the “technical amendment” #382 that was filed on MRVP 

Step 6: Take Action

If your Representative is signed on: say thank you!

If your Representative is not signed on: ask him/her to consider co-sponsoring.

You can call, email, use social media, visit the State House, attend an event.

Feel free to contact us with any questions or for more information.  For a sample script and a list of the amendments we are watching, click here

Stay tuned for more information; we will do our best to keep the blog updated as the budget process continues.  Representatives have up until the debates begin to co-sponsor and get educated about the amendments.

The debates begin on Monday, April 24th!

EA and RAFT Income Guidelines: Update

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As many of you know, eligibility for the family shelter system is based on the federal poverty level.  Only families learning less than 115% of the federal poverty level are eligible for shelter. The federal poverty level is reassessed each year. Below are the updated income levels based on the most recent federal data. 

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RAFT eligibility is based on Area Median Income and targeted to certain income levels. 

MBHP is currently accepting RAFT referrals only for families whose income is below 30% Area Median Income. 

They are no longer able to accept referrals for families between 30% and 50% AMI. Income Guidelines for RAFT below:

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 Thanks to Amy Mullen from MBHP and massresources.org for this information.

Rounding HomeBASe: Transitioning Out.

There is no doubt about it, and no need to sugar coat it: Transitioning 5,600 families off of HomeBASE rental assistance is going to be a challenge. FY14 is going to be messy and demanding.  Managing the transitions will be hard work for the providers and administrating agencies. And it will be confusing to understand the complicated policies, never mind how the options play out for each individual family.  But more than anything, it will be scary and emotionally taxing on families who were sold on a three year program.  The premature termination of the program is difficult for even a policy wonk to understand, but how do we explain it to a family, to children?

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The answer? As clearly and as many times as needed.  Staff should explain what they know, and what they don’t know. They should explain where the decisions are coming from and that is confusing for them too.  Staff and families must work together to find answers and explore options. Hopefully this information, which is based on HFF’s interpretations and is not official guidance, will be helpful:

Accessing Housing:

  • Families exiting HomeBASE should have a “homelessness priority” for housing programs.  Most public housing is funded through HUD so this is hard to enforce.  Contact DHCD (617 573-1123) with questions or issues relative to housing priorities
  • Some MRVP’s will be prioritized for HomeBASE families with disabilities.  Staff should begin developing a list of the numbers of families and when their rental assistance expires.  Also note which of those families need accessible units and/or have extremely complicated situations

Flexible Cash Assistance:

  • Families whose rental assistance is expiring are eligible for Household Assistance, RAFT and potentially additional funding through the Stabilization Fund.  Guidance regarding access has not been issued by DHCD yet. But- consider how this resource may be used for different scenarios: as a step down for working families or those with higher incomes/lower rents; for relocation costs; as a subsidy until permanent housing can be secured. The intent is to transition families off the program and not to replace the rental assistance, so some long term planning should be considered with this option.

Accessing Shelter:

  • DHCD has developed protocols to avoid families having to return to the local offices to apply for shelter.  This will make the process easier and less traumatic on families, put less pressure on the already overburdened offices….and put a lot on the plates of shelter providers (and HB administrators)
  • DHCD will be sending shelters/administrators a spreadsheet each month with the names of families whose rental assistance will be expiring in the month ahead.  After working with and assessing a family’s situation and options, the shelter will note which families will need to re-enter the shelter system.  This information, along with verification forms, will be submitted to the Central DHCD office.  Placement and any needed transportation will be arranged from Central Office.  Providers will have to verify that a family made a good faith effort to comply with their stabilization plans (which seems ironic since the Commonwealth did not make a good faith effort to meet the program promises, but I digress…and simultaneously acknowledge the efforts made to minimize the impact of that decision)
  • The key to making this work is truly the relationship between the stabilization worker and the family.  If families do not know who their stabilization workers are, they can call 617-572-1123. If there are strained relationships, programs and families must make efforts to work together and/or problem solve and try to understand each other’s challenges. 

Learning and moving the system ahead:

When HomeBASE was rolled out, the then-leadership at DHCD explained that the BASE stood for Building Alternatives to Shelter.  I never heard what the E stood for, and passive aggressively always wrote HomeBASe as a result.  We joked that the E stood for Experiment. One provider thought it implied, “eeeeeeeeeee,” an exclamation of fear and nervousness.  But I later heard a HomeBASE administrator call it Building Alternatives to Shelter Entry.  Logical….but I am still going with “Experiment”

It has been and continues to be, an experiment that provided two years of housing for over 5,000 families.  The experiment forced the regional housing agencies and shelters to work together in new ways. The experiment tarnished the short term subsidy concept, tested stabilization programs, and taught lessons that many claimed to know already.

The purpose of experiments is to learn; so let’s do that.  Please use the comment box below to share questions and ideas.  Send your ideas, tools, success stories, and gripes to us. Share data and fact sheets (obvi protecting confidentiality- but what is your program collecting?) 

This is hard, but no provider is alone.  Families, you are not alone. We are all in this together.      

It’s Time to Discuss: Residency Requirements and Tying Motels to Unemployment Rates

Bill H.1159188th (Current)

An Act relative to emergency hotel/motel housing requirements

By Mr. Speliotis of Danvers, a petition (accompanied by bill, House, No. 1159) of Theodore C. Speliotis and Joan Lovely relative to emergency hotel or motel housing requirements. Housing.

Sponsors: Theodore C. Speliotis 
Status: Referred to Joint Committee on Housing
  Hearing Scheduled for 6/4/2013 at 10:00 AM in B-2 

SECTION 1. Notwithstanding any general or special law or any rule or regulation to the contrary Chapter 23B of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 30B the following new section: Section 30BB: Any participant in the Department of Housing and Community Development’s emergency housing program shall be eligible for said program if such participant constitutes a resident of the Commonwealth, as defined in section 1 of chapter 176J of the General Laws, for not less than six months prior to the Department of Housing and Community Development placing said participant in a hotel or motel for emergency housing purposes. SECTION 2. Notwithstanding any general or special law or any rule or regulation to the contrary Chapter 23B of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 30BB the following new section: Section 30BB1/2: In the event that the unemployment rate of the Commonwealth, as reported monthly by the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, is less than or equal to six percent, the Department of Housing and Community Development shall suspend its placement of participants in hotels and motels pursuant to its emergency housing program; provided, however, in the event that said unemployment rate exceeds six percent, said program shall continue. SECTION 3. This act shall take effect upon passage.

The HFF Response:

Homes for Families supports S598, S597, H1156 and H1161 and any efforts to preserve housing, protect families/tenants, and prevent homelessness.  But we are here today to speak in opposition to H1159.

The bill is well intended and we appreciate Representative Speliotis’s leadership and concern on the issue.  However, the bill is not realistic.  It aims to do two things- implement a strict residency requirement and end motel use.

First, beginning in FY13 a residency requirement was implemented, to the extent of what is permitted by the constitutional right to travel and pursue opportunity.  We have discussed the “out of state/community” issue with National Groups, who explain that all communities feel they are a “magnet for homelessness.” Yet, the data shows a baseline rate of 10-13% of out of area applicants in any community.  Massachusetts has traditionally had about 10% of out of state families, putting us at the low end.

There seem to be two reactions to out of state families- to exclude them- which is unconstitutional and puts families and communities at risk.  If families are here- be it seeking better opportunities, for medical care, or fleeing domestic violence- they are here.

Or, the reaction is not to talk about it.  Instead, we should be monitoring the numbers, the reason, and the communities of origin and looking at trends so that we can address the issue proactively, allocate resources accordingly, support families with an appropriate response and be able to use the data for federal advocacy.

We have to recognize that there are legitimate reasons for coming here and legitimate reasons for leaving Massachusetts- such as seeking cheaper rent.  We cannot put walls up between our states or communities.

As for motel use.  Again, the intent is good.  We all want out of motels, but we must be careful not to over-regulate. Motel use can add flexibility to the system if utilized strategically.  It is not motel use that is the issue, but long term stays and over reliance- which is what we are facing now.  Yes, we want to stop needing to use motels, but the unemployment rate is not the right mechanism to determine when or how.

The primary reason for homelessness is the fact that wages have not kept pace with rent. For example, Home health aides, medical technicians, the service industry, and even the human service industry don’t pay workers sufficient wages to cover the high cost of rent.  Even if we had enough jobs and pay scales in line with the housing market, we still need to consider families that have disabilities, long and short term health issues, domestic violence and abuse and other barriers such as limited English, skills levels and CORI issues.

Homelessness is most often caused by failures in other systems- the education system, child protection, health care and structural inequalities.  Until we fix those other systems and reduce the rent/wage gap there cannot be a single mechanism or gauge to determine the appropriateness of motel use.

Instead, we need to look at solutions.  We recommend the following imperatives to meet our shared goal of reducing reliance on motels:

  • Continued investment in housing and prevention
  • Services to families in motels
  • Expand shelter capacity

Expanding capacity is not ideal; we’d rather expand the affordable housing stock.  But if we want to get out of motels, it must be considered.  However, to ease the pressure on the Emergency Assistance program, expansion should be considered in other systems- we need more stock and/or alternative programming for teen parents, parents aging out of DCF, domestic violence programs, substance abuse programs and mental health programs and for families with medical needs. Increasing these programs will ease the stress on the EA system and provide more appropriate environments to subpopulations struggling with housing stability.

We would love to hear your response and thoughts on the matter.  We can’t ignore these issues, let’s discuss!

Yeah, We’re Gonna Need Everyone To Work Some Magic: Updates and Next Steps

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”

-Albus Dumbledore 

Inspired by a follower on Twitter, this post will be Harry Potter themed, in hopes of conjuring up support for our champions in the legislature to work their magic on amendments to the house budget.

Looking for an overview of the budget in relation to family homelessness?

Presto!:

HWM allocated 106.5M to EA, which is consistent with the Governor’s proposal and adequate to cover current expenditures, however there were no changes to the FY13 categorical eligibility regulations. The transferability between the EA line item and motel line items is eliminated, meaning that DHCD cannot borrow money from EA to pay for motels.  As for shelters, no more than $91,476,700 will be expended to establish a single contract per service provider for the entirety of FY 14, to include all contracted and supportive program expenses. The HWM budget proposal did not include language that would require DHCD to shelter families who are otherwise eligible and are at imminent risk of staying in places not meant for human habitation.

As for HomeBASE, the 32 week time limit to access the program was eliminated, although the three year language was not restored. Another change was in eliminating the 12 month bar which will allow families to access household assistance if the third year is not honored.

MRVP, otherwise known as the HFF horcrux, was funded at 46.5M, consistent with the Governor’s proposal.  While this number is an increase from FY 13’s 42,5M, the number of vouchers distributed the FY will require the magical number of 46.5M to annualize. SO- although there is an increase in funding, it will NOT result in an increase of vouchers- quite the Legerdemain.   The decrease in motel numbers is largely attributed to the increase in MRVPs to families, so if the Administration wants to actualize this:

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without additional MRVP vouchers, they are going to have to strategize faster than you can say  “Evanesco”!, or at least gain access to the Room of Requirement within the next year.

Next Steps:

We have identified the following state representatives as a Patronus for the people, and we urge you to use the Expectro Patronum spell to encourage your own representatives to sign on to their amendments:

  • Emergency Assistance (line item 7004-0101)

Representative Kay Khan will file an amendment requiring DHCD to shelter families who are otherwise eligible to EA and who are at imminent risk of staying in places not fit for human habitation.

  • Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (line item 7004-9024)

Representative Paul Donato will file an amendment to increase funding for MRVP to $50 million.

Representative Gloria Fox will file an amendment to increase funding for MRVP to $60 million.

Representative Linda Campbell will file an amendment to restore the administrative fee to its current level.

  • HomeBASE (line item 7004-0108)

Representative Byron Rushing will be filing an amendment that would allow access to HomeBASE for the originally designed 3 years, allow EA access to families who are unable to maintain their market rate placements, allow access to RAFT and other prevention programs and would allow families enrolled in HomeBASE to maintain a homeless priority for state-funded public housing.

Please click here to find your representative, then call or email them to ask them to look into the Mirror of Erised and support amendments being filed on behalf of the programs that we advocate for.

Simply provide the program name and line item, the purpose of the amendment and the name of the representative who is the lead sponsor. Don’t forget to use the magic word (in this case, the magic word is please).

Unfortunately, we are mere muggles who cannot fight boggarts with spells like “Alohomora” or “Budget, engorgio!” and we cannot look to Professor Trelawney for Divination 101 to foresee the future for families across Massachusetts. The magic we use to fight for vulnerable families throughout the Commonwealth must be pure and the charms must be cast now until the end of the budget debates in order to truly make a difference.

( I know, not Dumbledore, and not even the same actor (Thanks to Gabi, our board co-chair, for that clarification)  But still…too good to pass up.)

Let Them Eat Cake (or Statewide EA Provider Meeting Overview)

Last week was a busy one in the family homelessness world.  Monday was the W. MA Emergency Assistance Regulation Hearing; Thursday was the Boston Hearing; and Friday DHCD hosted a statewide meeting with EA providers.  There was no mention of the hearings or next steps regarding eligibility at the meeting….but the Lt. Governor made an appearance to thank providers for their work and recognize the service of Bob Pulster; the Undersecretary addressed the crowd and also recognized Bob’s leadership in transitioning a system; and Bob gave his final address to the shelter provider community.

 A copy of the slides can be viewed and downloaded by clicking here.

The agenda included some data highlights regarding the EA caseload (3,775), length of stay (average 7 months), and re-entries into the system (or more than one episode = 14.9% over a 5 year period); HomeBASE Household Assistance utilization- both data and case examples and some discussion; updates on the MRVP front (which for some reason just put the song Rawhide in my head which is totally inappropriate for two reasons- one- we are talking about people not cattle…and two there are certainly not enough vouchers to feel like a cattle drive but work with me here …”Move ‘em out; Lease ‘em up…Lease ‘em up move ‘em out”…and just don’t think too deeply about it or be offended, ok?) Tim Yaeker reviewed BHA’s Leading the Way Home program and stabilization services; there was an ASSIST update and encouragement to attend the Early Learning Challenge Grant Hearings.

Click here for HFF’s notes from the meeting

The ASSIST info here

The Agency Goals here

Oh, and they also had a big sheet cake that said, “Thank you Bob” (white frosting, blue letters and the cake was part chocolate and part white.  It was good.)

LH