Mass. Homeless Program Faces 'Tsunami Of Need'

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Massachusetts set a record last year in the number of homeless families living in hotels. When homeless shelters are full, the state uses the hotels for temporary housing.

A new program has helped reduce the number of families living in hotels, but there is so much demand that officials worry the numbers could go back up.

Among those helped by the new program is 27-year-old Lianie Rivera, who now lives in a spacious four-bedroom apartment near Boston. Rivera moved in about a month ago and is rightfully proud of her new home. Last fall, she found herself going through a divorce, raising her five children alone, and homeless. Because all shelters were full, the state put Rivera and her kids — all under the age of 9 — into an isolated hotel in Brighton. She says it was difficult to cook, to do laundry, to get along.

"We spend $3,000 a month for a family to live in a hotel. We spend $1,100 a month for them to live in an apartment."

Chris Norris, Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership

"It was all one room with them. It was very crowded," Rivera said. "You know how kids are, they are on top of each other. I was pulling out my hair. I was trying to get their behavior better. It was a very tough situation."

Rivera is among the record number of homeless Massachusetts families who lived in hotels last year. But she was able to get into what's known as the HomeBase program — a new state effort to prevent homelessness.

"It's a great program. It certainly got me out of my situation and I'm thankful," Rivera said. "It's just that you want to be a parent. When you can't provide a home for your children, it's very painful."

In August, the program began providing emergency housing funds and long-term rental assistance to low-income families. The $40 million program helped some 3,000 families and dramatically reduced the number of those living in hotels. But by October, there were so many people seeking assistance that the program had to be curtailed.

"I would describe it as a tsunami of need," said Chris Norris, executive director of the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that administers affordable housing programs in Greater Boston. To qualify for the HomeBase program, a family must earn less than 115 percent of the federal poverty level. So a family the size of Rivera's would have to make less than $34,000 a year. Norris says thousands of families are in similar situations.

"We have more than 100,000 families on our wait-list right now statewide for rental assistance. It's a nine-year wait," Norris said.

Despite extra budget appropriations, the HomeBase program had to cut back on assistance. Norris estimates that through his agency, the program helped 475 families. He says without programs like it, the state ends up spending even more.

"We spend $3,000 a month for a family to live in a hotel. We spend $1,100 a month for them to live in an apartment. It's a roughly $7 million savings to the commonwealth to have those 475 families in housing rather than living in a hotel," Norris said.

The state budgeted $39 million for hotel rooms for the homeless this fiscal year. As of this week, there were 1,341 Massachusetts families staying in hotels — down from the all-time high of 1,800 families last summer.

Advocates for the homeless are asking lawmakers to continue to fund programs in the next budget so the state doesn't set another record.

This program aired on January 12, 2012.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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