The state government plans to eliminate a controversial emergency shelter program that places about 1,700 homeless families in motels and hotels paid by taxpayers, but housing advocates are worried officials will not be able to come up with better alternatives.
Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said the state aims to phase out the program — now near peak levels — by June 30, 2014.
Homeless families are placed in motels when the 2,000 rooms in the state’s family emergency shelter system reach capacity. The program has been around since the 1980s, but the struggling economy and high foreclosure rate have created a steady overflow since 2007. The effort costs taxpayers $80 per night per family, or about $45 million in fiscal year 2012.
“Everyone agrees” that the motel system is not an efficient use of taxpayer money or an adequate home for children, Gornstein said in a recent interview. Instead, he said, the state will increase homeless prevention and expand affordable housing options.
“The motels have no cooking facilities. There is no play space. It is difficult in terms of transportation, child care,’’ Gornstein said. Eliminating the motel system, he said, “is better for the families and it is better for the taxpayers. That is why we are moving forward.”
Although motel housing was originally envisioned as temporary, families stay for an average of six to eight months, and some of them for more than a year, Gornstein said.
While many housing advocates agree that the motel system is not ideal, they worry that the state will not be able to provide the resources to eliminate the need for motels.
Already the state tightened eligibility requirements for emergency shelter last summer, a move that prompted an outcry among advocates who say it leaves desperate families living on the street or their cars.
“A lot of children with their parents have nowhere else to go,” said Robyn Frost, executive director of the Lynn-based Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. She said extremely low-income families need more long-term rental housing vouchers to avoid homelessness.
Massachusetts is the only “right to shelter” state in the country, guaranteeing eligible needy families a roof over their heads. Family shelters are separate from temporary housing provided for individuals in places like the Pine Street Inn or Rosie’s Place — a system of shelters around the state.
For years, state officials have been struggling with what to do with the motel system, where families with children live in one-room homes in places like the Days Inn and Motel 6, often located by busy thoroughfares.
Over the past several years, the number of motel families escalated — skyrocketing from 771 in December 2010, to just under 1,700 last month, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
Numbers reached a peak last fall — near 1,800 — before beginning to drop last month, partly due to an increase in rental vouchers for needy families, the state said.
Concerned about the growing number of families needing shelter, the state last summer tightened eligibility requirements and increased funding to help them avoid homelessness.
Now families must not only meet monthly income limits — $2,209 for a family of four — but also must meet one of four other criteria, including proving they were victims of flood, fire, or natural disaster; victims of domestic violence; or that their situation poses health and safety risks to children. They also must prove they are Massachusetts residents.
Gornstein said the state is working to provide help to needy families through a myriad of programs, providing short-term and long-term funding. Among them is a recently announced plan to create 1,000 additional units of “supportive” housing, which includes services and housing for low-income families in Massachusetts.
In 2011, the state created the HomeBASE program to provide eligible families rental assistance or financial help of up to $4,000 a year to avoid homelessness or to transition out of emergency shelter.
“There is no other state that has this level of resources that we are providing now for homeless families,’’ Gornstein said. “It’s still a major challenge to find affordable housing, and we are doing everything we possibly can to make that easier.”
Chris Norris, executive director of the nonprofit Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership that administers the HomeBASE program in the Boston area, said he would like to eliminate the motel program. However, he worries that some people who have been helped may fall back into homelessness this year. Among them, he said 6,000 families who receive rental assistance are expecting to see the financial help expire within two years, starting this summer. If they don’t get more help, many will end up back at the state’s emergency shelters, he said.
“We should have a goal of having an adequate supply of permanent housing,” he said. “We can’t do something with nothing.”