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.


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.


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:


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!


A reminder

Homelessness and the motel crisis is in the news this week, sparked by this article in the Herald.  The rising motel number was also mentioned on the NPR stations this morning and WBZ radio are working on a story, probably to be aired this afternoon.  During the interview, I was taken aback by the reporter telling me that his other sources explained that there are families in motels that have alternative housing and do not really need shelter.  Here is a reminder from a mother, posted as a comment on this blog a while back, about what it is like to enter the shelter system and live in a motel.  Families need housing and support and not more judgement and skepticism.

Why on Earth would anyone declare themselves homeless, over a petty argument, falling out, etc? Do you know how embarrassing it is to go to DHCD/DTA and apply for shelter? Do you know how humiliating it is to lug trash bags of you and your children’s belongings into the brick building on the corner on Dudley street, and the onlookers knowing exactly why? Do you know what it is to have someone judge you, to see if you are “needy” enough for their “help”? Do you know what it is to be hungry at night, but you cannot cook because you cannot fit more than 5 items of food, or even 1 single gallon of milk, in your tiny motel “fridge”? Do you know what it is to survive off of school food, hot pockets and the occasional Mc Donalds when money permits? Do you know what it is so be considered lazy, selfish, self-centered, uneducated, incompetent… because you became a homeless PARENT? Do you know what it is for your innocent toddler to pray to God every single night for a home? Do you know what it is to be INVISIBLE!?

I don’t think you’ve had a real chat with any homeless person, especially a mother. Because if you did, you would know that we do not declare ourselves homeless to take up the “tax payers” money. Nobody wants this life!!!

-signed Homeless Mother and College Student

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!