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Mass. Homeless Families Back in Hotels

Many housing advocates say Massachusetts is facing a crisis in family homelessness. All of the state's emergency shelter beds for families are taken, and that's forced officials to resume the practice of housing families in hotels and motels.

What started out with a handful a year ago has now ballooned to more than 500 families living in hotels and motels around the state. And, as WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports, providers are worried the situation will only get worse as winter approaches.

TEXT OF STORY:

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Some of the hotels housing homeless families boast high speed wireless Internet, continental breakfast, and indoor swimming pools. But this matters little to families who arrive with a garbage bag full of belongings, no computer and often no car.

A young woman sits outside of a motel in Saugus watching the traffic on Route 1.

YOUNG WOMAN: It's hard. It is really hard.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: This 19-year-old is married and three months pregnant. She and her husband were placed here in Saugus after becoming homeless in Quincy. They've been here a month and a half.

YOUNG WOMAN: I don't like it because it's so far from everybody from every thing. There's no supermarkets around here, gotta travel. Money is tight and you always need money to get to where you need to go.

BRADY-MYEROV: Next to her, another woman and two young children peer from behind a curtain in a window. A third sits in a plastic chair with her three-month-old baby boy wrapped in blankets.

If these families were in emergency homeless shelters they could cook in a kitchen, hang out in common areas, and their children could play in designated play spaces. They would have a case manager on site to help find permanent housing. The 19-year-old who was too embarrassed to give her name says she has a hard time connecting with her case worker on the phone, and she's tired of having no stove.

YOUNG WOMAN: Microwavable food is basically the only hot stuff that we're eating for about a month. It's bad for my health being pregnant and all. After a while you get sick of the same stuff.

BRADY-MYEROV: Three years ago, the state increased the number of emergency shelter beds and stopped housing homeless families in motels because it's not ideal, even though right now it costs the state slightly less to house a family in a motel. $85 a night for a motel on average, compared with $99 in a shelter. But last fall, as more people came looking for emergency shelter, Marilyn Anderson Chase, the Assistant Secretary for Children Youth and Families, says the state exceeded capacity.

MARILYN ANDERSON CHASE: It started with four. I distinctly remember the day when we placed the first family. So it started with four. We thought it was going to be a short term fix and it has unfortunately steadily increased since last winter.

BRADY-MYEROV: The latest figures available show 544 families living in Holiday Inns, Super 8s, Best Westerns, and other hotels around the state. All 2400 spaces for families in shelters are full. Fuel prices, foreclosed rental properties, and the economy have all contributed to a rise in homelessness.

This is happening against the backdrop of the state's goal to end homelessness by 2015. Chase is still optimistic the state will meet that goal if it stays focused on affordable housing and not short term fixes, such as building more emergency shelters.

CHASE: The money that we would put into building emergency shelters we would absolutely certainly prefer to see going into making more permanent housing available. The answer is not to expand our emergency shelter system the answer is to increase resources available to support families where they are so they are able to remain in housing.

BRADY-MYEROV: The state is working on the problem by identifying people at risk of becoming homeless and helping them with rent payments, utility bills, or whatever they need so they can stay where they are. And, for those who are already homeless, the state is looking for more private and public affordable units.

Erin Spaulding runs the Family Life Center in Brockton, a family homeless shelter. She calls the number of homeless families a crisis and she fears it will get worse.

ERIN SPAULDING: Us, as providers, we are very, very worried because it's still warm out and we know the incoming winter, with the ability to pay for the oil people are going to struggle.

SUE BEATON: Crisis to me is opportunity.

BRADY-MYEROV: Sue Beaton is head of One Family, an organization that's aiming to end family homelessness by changing the state's systems, practices, and policies.

SUE BEATON: We have gotta to get smarter about how we use our existing resources. $86 million on 5000 families is a big allotment. We could be doing perhaps $86 million on 20,000 families if we get better on the ground.

BRADY-MYEROV: The state supports this view, but with the family shelter system straining at the seams right now, reformers say it's hard to break away from relying on emergency shelters and then turning to motels when there's an overflow.

For WBUR, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on September 23, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Monica Brady-Myerov Twitter Reporter
Monica Brady-Myerov was formerly a report in WBUR's newsroom.

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