Until last year, Christie French and her two children lived at her mother’s house in Roxbury. It was a good home, a well-lived-in place filled with favorite things and family pictures, and they were happy there. It even had a big backyard, big enough for a dog.
But when French’s mother lost her office job at a construction company, the family could not make the mortgage. French worked at Dunkin’ Donuts, but her paycheck was not nearly enough.
When the bank foreclosed on the house last year, the Frenches had nowhere to go. They stayed with her aunt for a few weeks, squeezed together in one small room, before seeking emergency shelter. They spent last winter at a motel in Braintree, then moved to a temporary apartment in Boston.
But soon, through a focused city effort to reduce homelessness among Boston families, the Frenches will again have a place of their own. They are among 500 Boston families living in emergency shelters who will receive housing subsidies to rent an apartment, beginning in the new year.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino will announce the $6 million in new subsidies today. French, a single mother whose children are 16 and 12, said next week she will sign the lease on a three-bedroom apartment.
“We’re all very excited,’’ she said. “It’s a nice place, just up the street from my mother’s house. It will be good to be back in the old neighborhood.’’
The housing subsidies, which have come under increasing demand since the recession, are part of an effort to place families living in motels or shelters in permanent homes, a model housing specialists say saves the government money in the long run and helps families become more independent.
“It makes a huge difference for the families,’’ said Christopher Norris, who directs the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, working with the city’s housing authority to place 200 homeless families in Boston in public housing developments.
In Boston, the new vouchers will allow the city to reach its goal, set about five years ago, of reducing homelessness among families by half, officials said.
Vouchers will be distributed to families who have lived in shelters the longest, and most families who will qualify have lived in shelters for more than a year. State housing officials began reaching out to families in October.
“There’s such an adverse impact on families who are homeless for a long time,’’ said Jim Greene, director of the city’s Emergency Shelter Commission. “We’re trying to move as many families into permanent housing as quickly as we can.’’
Greene said the city’s recent homeless census found no families living on the street, but the number of families seeking emergency shelter remains high. For the poor, the cost of market-rate apartments, even in the worst neighborhoods, is far beyond their means, and vouchers have been increasingly hard to come by.
“Without rental assistance, the lowest-income families are perennially at risk of homelessness,’’ Greene said. “This is a ray of hope.’’
Currently, many city families wind up staying in shelters outside the city, and Greene said the vouchers should create more openings in Boston shelters.
The Boston Housing Authority is distributing the federal subsidies, known as Section 8 vouchers. Families that receive vouchers are required to pay about 30 percent of their income toward rent.
Public housing agencies receive federal funds to administer voucher programs and pay landlords subsidies directly. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount of the voucher.
The Boston families will also receive help from the state housing department, which will assign case managers to help families regain their footing and live independently.
Housing officials say placing families in permanent housing will save about $12 million a year, since the cost of keeping families in shelters exceeds $25,000 per family a year.
New vouchers, however, are rare. Boston has not allowed new applicants for three years, when it had more than 7,000.
“We just don’t have enough,’’ said Lydia Agro of the Boston Housing Authority.
Families who receive vouchers must find apartments on their own, but a number of landlords will list openings with the housing authority.
For French, the prospect of an apartment feels like a new day. The children are ecstatic at the idea of having separate bedrooms, and she is already picking out which family pictures will go where.
“They’ve been boxed away,’’ she said.