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Mass. scrambling to find housing for its homeless

As numbers hit a record high, state fills shelters, far-off motel rooms

UMass student Felicita Diaz moved to Northborough when a subsidy ended. Her family has since relocated to Chelsea.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

UMass student Felicita Diaz moved to Northborough when a subsidy ended. Her family has since relocated to Chelsea.

GREENFIELD — Record numbers of homeless families are overwhelming the state’s emergency shelter system, filling motel rooms at the cost to taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars a year.

An average of nearly 2,100 families a night — an all-time high — were temporarily housed in motel rooms in October, just about equaling the number of families in emergency shelters across the state, according to be the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

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The demand for shelter is so great that the state has been temporarily sending homeless families from Boston to motels in Western Massachusetts, although state officials said many have been relocated back again, closer to home.

Aaron Gornstein, the undersecretary for housing, said the surge has followed cuts in state and federal housing subsidies, soaring rents in Greater Boston, and still-high rates of unemployment and underemployment, particularly among lower-income workers.

“The state as a whole has recovered from the Great Recession faster than most other states, but in many ways we’re still struggling,” Gornstein said. “Federal budget cuts have made the situation worse.”

A recent report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the number of homeless people in shelters and living on the streets in Massachusetts has risen 14 percent since 2010 to nearly 20,000 in January 2013, even as homelessness has declined nationally.

This jump in homelessness is another example of an uneven recovery. Even as stocks soar to new heights and real estate values rebound, many of the state’s poorest residents remain without jobs and homes four years after the last recession. The problems have been compounded by the dramatic federal spending cuts, known as sequestration, which have cut housing and food subsidies.

“There’s no question, this is a continuing legacy of the Great Recession,” said Michael Goodman, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “There’s more we can do to help, but it’s not likely, given where federal policy is. That suggests it’s going to be a very long winter for many.”

In the Western Massachusetts community of Greenfield, taxicabs pull up to the Quality Inn, but instead of tourists or business travelers with wheeled luggage, homeless families toting belongings in trash bags emerge.

Gretchen Vazquez is one of them. She moved into a room in the Quality Inn in October with her two daughters, 1- and 9-years-old, when the state subsidy for her Roxbury apartment ran out after the Legislature stopped funding a program called HomeBASE. The program was created to provide an alternative to emergency shelters.

The cramped motel, Vazquez lamented, is far from her evangelical church and her daughter’s school in West Roxbury. After missing about two weeks of school, her daughter enrolled in the public school system here.

“I’m stuck,” said Vazquez. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Massachusetts has one of the most extensive shelter systems in the country. Unlike most states, it offers emergency housing to anyone who qualifies. Many end up in shelters or living in homes that board families in rooms, known as congregate housing.

Motels are one of the state’s most expensive options at $82 a night, almost as much as congregate housing’s $100 a night cost. In the past five years, state spending on motels has exploded to more than $46 million from about $1 million in 2008, according to state records

The average motel stay, state housing officials said, is about seven months, although some families live in motels for a year waiting for affordable housing.

Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, a Boston advocacy group, said it is not surprising that low-income workers with fewer skills cannot make ends meet since even college graduates are struggling to find work.

“The economy is not working,” Hayes said. “How do we expect people from the lowest income tier to make it if people who have had opportunities can’t?”

The recent jump in homeless people signals that people have run out of alternatives, said Randy Albelda, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Many families were able to stay off the streets by living off savings, doubling up with family members, or sleeping on friends’ couches, Albelda said. But eventually their money or relatives’ good will “just runs out.”

“Families close to the edge have not been able to pull back from the edge in this recovery,” Albelda said. “That’s in part because the recovery has not affected the bottom 30 to 40 percent of people.”

Rather than warehousing families in motel rooms, said Jim Greene, director of the Emergency Shelter Commission of Boston, the state needs more long-term rental assistance programs that target families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

“That’s how you bring the numbers down, with the right social services,” he said. “Short-term programs don’t get people out of homelessness.”

Felicita Diaz’s family — her mother, 20-year-old sister, and 11-year-old brother — moved to an EconoLodge in Northborough for three weeks this fall after the housing subsidy for their Dorchester apartment ended.

Diaz, 18, a freshman at UMass Boston, said she took the commuter rail to get to her first day of college and then stayed with friends so she could attend classes and keep her job in the admissions office. But her 11-year-old brother missed about three weeks of school because the family could not afford the daily $9 fare to and from Boston on the commuter rail. Her mother had to quit her English as a Second Language classes because of the distance.

The family has temporarily moved to an apartment in Chelsea, continuing to hunt for affordable housing. Diaz’s brother is back in school, but her mother will have to wait until spring to enroll again in English classes.

“It’s been really hard,” Diaz said.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com
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