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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5/15-5/19 What is happening Under the Golden Dome…

….relative to housing and homelessness?

 

The Senate Committee on Ways and Means will release their budget proposal on Tuesday, May 16th. The deadline to file any amendments to the SWM proposal is Thursday and debates will begin the following Tuesday, May 23rd.  Debates will wrap up in time for Memorial Day Weekend.

The budget proposal release is not the only action and activity taking place at the State House next week, click here for the full schedule of hearings and events for the month of May. 

There are three committee hearings on Monday – the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets; the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, and the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change. Both the House and Senate will be in “informal session”.

Monday will be a good day to call your Senator’s office and let them know what you hope they will prioritize in the Senate Budget Debates.  Click here look up your State Senator and below is a sample script:

“Hi, my name is ______ and I live in the Senator’s district in _(your town)__. I am calling because I am concerned about (housing, homelessness, transportation, jobs, education…be specific) and I am asking that the Senator prioritizes these issues during the upcoming budget debates.

And it will also be a good day to write testimony in support of or against any of the bills that are being considered in the week ahead. Verbal testimony should be 3 minutes or less. Written testimony can be submitted to the committee.

Tuesday is the big day! Not only will the budget be released, but there are 12 hearings scheduled!! The Joint Committee on Housing is hosting an Oversight Hearing  (oversight hearings generally include invited panelists from State or Quasi agencies or other experts in the field and the public is open to listen). Other hearings focus on bills, many of which touch on the issue of family homelessness, and are open to the public to listen and/or give testimony:

Wednesday there is one hearing hosted by the Joint Committee on Transportation. Wednesday will be a key day for confirming sponsors for Amendments to the Senate Ways and Means Proposal and Thursday will be the deadline. Now is the time to sign up for our action alerts if you have not already.

Did you know that Massachusetts often near the top of the list for the number of bills filed; but is close to the bottom of the list of the number of bills passed. This slightly outdated article lists us as passing only 5% of all bills. However, hearings give us all a chance to be heard; to make our case, to elevate an issue, to interact with those that make decisions impacting our lives, to support legislators fighting the good fight, and to call out injustices of bad bills.

For more on Legislative and Budget advocacy, click here for a recent webinar (slides or full presentation with audio) we did with our colleagues on the On Solid Ground Coalition.

LH

Visioning Day Report 2014: Housing is A Basic Human Right

Basic Human Right FB Pic

The first two recommendations in our Visioning Day Report relate to the vision and principle that HOUSING IS A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT.

As Representative Rushing often reminds audiences, the answer to the question, “Why are people homeless?” is actually quite simple.  The answer is, “because they don’t have a home.”   Using that logic to solve homelessness, we need two primary approaches- to increase the stock of affordable housing available to families who are homeless and to prevent households from losing their homes in the first place. Our specific recommendations based on the input from Visioning Day are:

  1. Implement an aggressive and expansive housing agenda which includes deep investments in housing subsidies, access to public housing, new development and zoning reform that promotes increased multi -family housing development
  2. Develop a more comprehensive and accessible homelessness prevention system that includes flexible resources, services, supports and pathways to opportunity.

MRVP, Prevention and Public Housing were ranked by Visioning Day attendees as the three most important budget priorities.  Voucher distribution and access to services were ranked as the top issues for Homes for Families to prioritize. The breakout group with the most attendance was the group on Housing, and the issues of housing and prevention were raised in each distinct discussion group.

On Housing:

MRVP and public housing are 2 of the state’s most effective defenses against homelessness. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2014 Out of Reach report, on average, a minimum wage earner in Massachusetts must work 3 full time jobs in order to afford the average rent of a 2-bedroom apartment. In Boston, 3.5 minimum wage jobs are required. The gap between what is affordable to an SSI recipient and fair market rent is a remarkable $1038*.

MRVP and public housing make housing affordable to households in a market that is often hostile toward their needs and available resources. Bold investments in these programs will assist the state on its path to increased affordable housing development, particularly supportive housing units that will provide wrap around services to increase family and community stability. The implementation of more residential service providers in public housing and private development could also reduce evictions and be used as a leverage point for easing the strict eligibility requirements for families that may have credit, CORI or other negative housing histories.

Zoning restrictions in many local communities often create challenges to the development of housing for low income households. In addition to funding affordable housing programs, elected officials should pass legislation that promotes local land use policies that support the development of small-parcel and/or multi-family development in addition revisiting and enforcing Chapter 40 to allow the state to provide communities with the appropriate tools for planning and development.

On Prevention:

You know the stories- the family that became homeless after a layoff, a medical emergency, a no fault eviction without enough savings for first and last- and we know you know the cost argument: Many instances of homelessness can be prevented with a fraction of what will be spent on sheltering that same family. Flexible cash assistance is a vital resource for families that need a short term infusion of money to preserve their tenancy during a short term economic emergency.    The challenge is to ensure that programs, like RAFT, are fully funded through the entire fiscal year, and that private, municipal and other prevention programs are coordinated and accessible so that families and case workers don’t need to go on a wild goose chase in the middle of an economic crisis. We also know that mediation and legal representation can be critical in preventing evictions.

However, the long term effectiveness of prevention through short term financial assistance is limited by the vast gap between wages and rent.   Without a living wage, a long term subsidy, ongoing gap funding, and/or a social/familial network of means, homelessness may be inevitable.  A comprehensive prevention system would also provide the supports, resources and opportunities for long term housing stability.  According to DHCD, in fiscal year 2014, 14% of families eligible for emergency assistance were homeless due to eviction.  At the same time, over half of eligible families were living in irregular housing situations or in homes where they were not the primary tenant**.  Many of the younger families who are in shelter never had their own apartment.  Prevention should also consider how to support young parents to live independently.

Resources, supports and opportunities needs to be accessible. Prevention discussions often highlight the need for upstream interventions.  The Maximizing Resources group talked about the role of schools and the health care community as core partners in doing outreach and linking families to resources.  Participants in the Shelter Breakout group discussed the positive attributes of shelter, including: supportive services, peer support, material goods, trainings and workshops, and housing advocacy.  How can prevention programs reach families sooner and incorporate such components, so that families can access the supports and opportunities they need without having to enter shelter?

How do we push this agenda forward?

This is where you come in! What are the specific programs and models that are working? What are the topics that you want to learn more about? What data do we need to make our point? What data is already out there? What are your stories?  What are the resources you are willing to advocate for?

Sources:

*National Low Income Housing Coalition, Out Of Reach, March 2014. http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/oor/2014-OOR-MA.pdf

** DHCD Emergency Assistance Program Fiscal Year 2014, Fourth Quarter Report http://www.mass.gov/hed/docs/dhcd/hs/ea/fy14q4eareport.pdf, July 31, 2014

Why we are supporting an expansion to shelter…

We’ve said it before and we will say it again. Massachusetts is facing the biggest family homelessness crisis in the history of the Commonwealth. The family shelter system was procured in 2009 for 2,023 families and is now serving over 4,500. The motel census reached a high in December of 2013 with over 2,240 families.  Today (May 20, 2014), that number is 1,876.  The reduction of families in motels can be attributed to four primary factors:

  • the issuance of MRVP housing vouchers; 500 MRVP vouchers were targeted to the longest term shelter stayers during Fy14. While this number is almost insignificant when compared to the number of families in the system, the exits provided enough movement to restructure scattered site units to house more families and provided housing assistance to families with barriers;
  • the expansion of contracted shelter units; an additional 650 shelter units have been added on this fiscal year.  Providers and DHCD worked together to add capacity that would ensure a higher level of service to families;
  • the dedication, hard work and partnerships between parents, providers and policy makers; better communication and more collaboration between all stakeholders, and an unyielding dedication to ending homelessness, has resulted in policy changes, new program models, transitioning over 5,000 families off of HomeBASE;
  • and use flexible use of the HomeBASE resource- including the increase in the per-family spending cap. Waivers to the 12 month bar and an increase in the HomeBASE stipend amount has resulted in an increase in exits from shelter and motels

There is a shared concern about the over reliance on motels as a response to the homelessness crisis.  Long term motel stays are inhumane– the short and long term impacts on children and their families is unjustifiable…especially in a nation- and a state- as wealthy as the United States and the Commonwealth. We know, and the media has highlighted (again and again), the breadth of concerns- impacts on mental and physical health and development; serious safety risks; fiscal impacts on the state, cities and towns; logistical impossibilities; lack of services, and the list goes on. Even the good motels- healthy conditions, near transportation, community support, access to food and/or cooking facilities, a baseline of services- are only acceptable living situations for so long. Everyone, I think, agrees that motels are not the solution to homelessness.  And undoubtedly, everyone agrees that we do not want children living on the streets of the Commonwealth– so just shutting motels down is not a solution, or even an option.

The solution is housingThe solution is education and jobs. The solution is access to meaningful services. The solution is prevention. The solution is a comprehensive and individualized response to housing emergencies and a range of housing alternatives to meet the needs of sub-populations of low income households. Simple, right? The problem is that we don’t have all of these things (yet).

The Senate proposed a significant investment in MRVP.  Our collective advocacy has made a difference and the program is taking a step towards restoration (remember it was once funded at over $120M!) However, even if all the vouchers were targeted to homeless families, it would not be enough.

NewVouchers Vs Homelessness

 *based on FY13 DHCD caseload data and projected number of vouchers
 proposed in the Senate Ways and Means Budget

But to make matters more complicated, the Senate language precludes the targeting of mobile MRVP directly to families in the EA program and proposes wait-lists be used or established (families in the EA program on the wait-lists will be eligible, assuming they meet other eligibility standards and project based vouchers are not limited by the budget language). So while the investment will help to address the HOUSING CRISIS– the fact that we do not have enough affordable housing to meet the needs of the citizens of the Commonwealth- it will not make a significant impact in our HOMELESSNESS CRISIS.

The increased cap and flexibility in HomeBASE is provides resources for some families- but the gap in wages and rent remains too vast for it to be a long term answer for most; and the social/familial networks of many families in the system simply are not there or are not resourced enough to provide even short term solutions.  Even prevention is temporary without significant and sustainable increases in income or access to a subsidy.

We want to continue to build on the momentum and reduce reliance on motels.  Even if the system can’t shut them all down, the length of stay must be shorter. The problem is that we don’t have enough of the solutions, and turning our backs is not- and could never be- an option.

We are not changing our name…we will never be “Shelters for Families”.  We believe in ending homelessness and we believe in HOMES FOR FAMILIES- not just as our name, but as a human right. And we believe that together, with more advocacy, more community support, with more of the family voice demanding what they NEED, and more holding of Government officials accountable through voting and civic engagement- we will get there. But, we also believe in doing better for families…and until we get enough of the solutions, we need more shelter units. A reasonable number. This is why we support the Lovely amendment, #412 and think you should too.

Please consider contacting your State Senator and ask that they support this amendment.

And click here to see the other amendments we are supporting

LH