BOSTON — Hundreds of volunteers will fan out across Boston Monday night to conduct the city’s 34th annual homeless census. They’ll be counting how many people are living on the streets and in shelters.
By now, homelessness was supposed to be a thing of the past in Boston and all of Massachusetts. In 2008, a state legislative commission released a five-year plan to eliminate it. But today, homelessness is up and the number of families seeking shelter is at an all-time high.
‘Obligated To Place’
When it comes to dealing with homeless families, Massachusetts is unique. Thirty years ago, the commonwealth become the first “right to shelter” state, guaranteeing every eligible family a roof over their heads.
“We have the most extensive emergency shelter system in the country and we’re the only state where [when] someone qualifies for emergency shelter, we are obligated to place,” explained Aaron Gornstein, Massachusetts’ undersecretary of Housing and Community Development.
The housing office has contracts with permanent shelters around the state to provide emergency assistance for 2,000 families. In normal times, the safety net works, serving homeless parents and their children under 21. But, Gornstein says, these are not normal times.
“We’ve been coming out the Great Recession but there are still many families facing economic hardship,” Gornstein said. “We have a very tight rental market compared to a year ago, so we do see more evictions for non-payment of rent because rents are going up.”
Way up: the average monthly rent in Massachusetts is the sixth highest in the nation. And as rents have soared around the state, incomes have stagnated. Massachusetts has one of the widest wage gaps between rich and poor in the country.
“People don’t choose homelessness, people do not choose poverty,” said Diane Sullivan, policy director at the Boston-based advocacy organization Homes for Families. ”You could be working two jobs. That’s what a lot of people say, ‘Oh, well, if you’re working and you’re still poor, get another job.’ You could never sleep, you could never be there to care for your children and you still wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. That’s the reality.”
Sequestration Hits An Already-Struggling System
“But what’s made it worse,” Gornstein explained, “is the federal budget cuts that occurred as part of sequestration earlier this year.” Gornstein says since spring, the state has lost $20 million in federal funding for subsidized housing. The so-called Section 8 program has been frozen at 20,000 vouchers in Massachusetts. There are 95,000 households on the waiting list.
Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, says the situation is worse than it’s ever been in Massachusetts — with the state’s emergency shelter system now serving 4,100 homeless families, or twice its capacity.
“The numbers in shelters are higher than ever before and shelters are scrambling to add on more capacity to meet the need, and we have more families being turned away because they’re found not to be eligible than ever before,” Hayes said.
Last year, the state instituted new standards making it harder for families to qualify for emergency assistance. Liza Hirsch, an attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, says now more than half the families that apply are denied emergency shelter.
“The effect of tighter standards is that families are in very, very dire circumstances,” Hirsch said. “So they’re scrambling to find family members, friends, acquaintances, people they barely know to stay with and then sometimes have to resort to sleeping in cars in sub-freezing temperature. It’s really a crisis.”
Motels As Emergency Shelter
Gornstein says the state office is doing the best it can.
“We are obligated to place every family that’s eligible. We do that the same day and we do it to make sure that the families and children are safe,” Gornstein explained. “And if we don’t have enough emergency shelter beds in our regular shelter system, we then go to hotels and motels. It is not our preference to do that.”
Across the state, a record number of motel rooms are being pressed into service as emergency family shelters.
“It’s pretty depressing,” Hayes said. “It’s cars whizzing by, it’s the only accessible food being sometimes fast food, if you’re lucky. And it’s one room. Imagine your house with just your bedroom and your bathroom.”
Lynnicia, 22, whose last name we’re not using for privacy reasons, doesn’t have to imagine it. For her and her infant son, homelessness is real. Last summer, she was living in an apartment in Taunton when the federal subsidy ran out and the landlord raised the rent to the market rate. Lynnicia couldn’t afford it on her salary as a child care worker, so she and Myshon, now 15 months old, moved out.
“Well, making part-time income was not enough for me to afford my own apartment so I had to apply for a shelter,” Lynnicia explained.
But there was no emergency shelter spaces left in eastern Massachusetts, so the state sent Lynnicia and her son west to a motel in Greenfield.
“I mean, I was grateful to have a place to stay, but Greenfield wasn’t ideal for me,” Lynnicia said. She had never been to Greenfield before. She looked at a map to realize it was two hours from her old apartment in Taunton – too far from her job in Quincy and her son’s doctors in Boston. Myshon has sickle cell anemia. They got help from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and a week later they got a room at the Days Hotel in Brighton. It’s still a three-hour round-trip ride to her job on public transport, but the room is clean and safe and warm. There are two beds, a crib, a small fridge and a microwave.
“I never thought I’d be in shelter, period. I mean, I’ve always been working and I always felt that I was going to make a way, but nowadays, the apartment we had was affordable and now we don’t have anything that’s affordable,” Lynnicia said. “So, I mean, affordable housing would be great.”
“The problem is that the wait lists are very, very long,” Hirsch said. ”Families basically have to apply at all of the different housing authorities separately and they just have to complete application after application after application and then they sit on waiting lists.”
The average homeless family stay in a motel is seven months. The state pays $82 a day, or about $17,000 per family.
In 2008, Massachusetts spent $1 million for the entire year on motel space. This year, it will spend that and more in a week.
“It’s not just about the money, families go through trauma,” said Diane Sullivan, policy director at Homes for Families. She knows firsthand about the human cost of homelessness. Twelve years ago, her husband lost his job and they and their four children lost their home.
“We were evicted for owing just over $1,000,” Sullivan said. Today, if a family is evicted from subsidized housing for failing to pay rent, it cannot qualify for emergency shelter for three years. But back in 2001, the regulations were different and Sullivan’s family did qualify for a motel room. It was Christmas Eve.
“When I talk about it, it brings up these emotions that I guess I haven’t dealt with. But, this is why I do this work. Because it doesn’t need to be. Families don’t need to be homeless,” Sullivan said. “Some families just need a housing subsidy, some families need more than that, we need to stop this cookie cutter approach that says, ‘Here’s the one solution that is going to work for every single one of you.’”
Ultimately, homeless advocates and state officials agree. What’s needed is more permanent affordable housing. Lots of it, Gornstein says.
“It’s better for the families and better for the taxpayers,” he explained. But the up-front costs for permanent, affordable housing are very expensive. There’s another approach, Gornstein says: Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT.
“The most cost-effective measure would be to prevent the homelessness in the first place,” Gornstein explained. And state funding for the RAFT prevention program has gone from $200,000 two years ago to $10 million today.
“This is a flagship program which helped 3,000 families from becoming homeless in the first place. And our average level of assistance that we’re providing per family is about $2,500,” Gornstein said. But the RAFT program to prevent homelessness is too late for the 4,100 families in Massachusetts now living in emergency shelters. Among them, Lynnicia and her infant son, Myshon.
“You know what? I don’t care where it is that I stay, as long as there’s a place to stay, you know? Where I can do what I have to do and not stop working,” Lynnicia said. “Where I can continue to care for him and he can continue to get his health care. Other than that, I mean, I’m working, I’m in school, based on that, I kind of want to continue to make a better life for myself.”
Lynnicia is studying online to become a lawyer. Her computer sits on the desk on her motel room in Brighton. A place she’ll call home for the indefinite future.