Republican gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker Wednesday said he would work, by the end of his first year in office, to eliminate the state practice of sending homeless families to hotels and motels when shelters are full.
Calling homelessness in Massachusetts a “human tragedy,” Baker said the practice often separates families and, in particular, children from their established communities.
“This is not a way to create any kind of stability or permanence for the kids,” he said in a telephone interview.
Massachusetts is a right-to-shelter state, so when eligible homeless families apply for emergency housing, the state is mandated to provide it. Massachusetts contracts about 2,000 shelter beds. When those are full, the state puts additional homeless families in hotels and motels at an average cost of about $82 a night.
A recent spike in Massachusetts homeless families has overwhelmed the state’s system of shelters, leading to an increase in families being put up in motels, sometimes far away from where they used to live and the school systems their children attended.
Governor Deval Patrick’s administration said at the beginning of this year that it would work to phase out the program by the middle of 2014. Former governor Mitt Romney also sought to end the practice.
Baker declined to make an ironclad pledge to eliminate putting homeless families in hotels and motels in his first year in office, if he wins. But, he said, the program had been successfully phased out before.
In the early 1990s, when he worked in the administration of Governor William F. Weld, Baker said he and others in state government reduced the number of homeless families in hotels and motels from hundreds to zero.
Among the strategies Baker proposed using today: expanding the HomeBASE program, which provides eligible families rental assistance or financial help to avoid homelessness or move out of emergency shelter; deploying assessment teams to work with each family living in hotels or motels to figure out a plan to move them into permanent housing; and being more flexible with how funding is used by local and regional providers.
Baker declined to directly criticize Patrick on the issue. But, he said: “These are ideas that have been used before. ... I don’t see any reason why anyone has to wait to use them.”
Baker, the 2010 GOP nominee, lost that year’s governor’s race to Patrick who was reelected to a second term.
On Wednesday, responding to Baker’s proposal, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, Tom McGee, released a statement asking whether Baker still supported checking the residency status of people seeking a shelter bed.
During the 2010 campaign, Baker proposed requiring anyone seeking state benefits to show proof they were a legal resident. Asked at the time whether that would mean turning away people needing a bed at the Pine Street Inn, a Boston shelter, Baker said, “Yeah, I think we should require it for everything,” according to a Globe article at the time.
“I mean, I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who are residents of Massachusetts to be on waiting lists,’’ he said, “when people who aren’t residents and citizens are taking advantage of services.’’
His 2010 campaign subsequently clarified that Baker did not want anyone turned away from a shelter in emergency situations.
On Wednesday, Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said in an email: “It was clear then, as it is now, that under no circumstance would Charlie deny emergency assistance to anyone in need.”
He added that Baker does “not believe there should be a requirement to prove residency for shelter services.”
One Republican, Mark R. Fisher, is challenging Baker for the GOP nomination in 2014.
Five Democrats are running to succeed Patrick, who has pledged not to run for a third term. They are: Attorney General Martha Coakley; Treasurer Steven Grossman; Donald M. Berwick, a former Obama administration health care official; Joseph C. Avellone, a biotechnology executive; and Juliette Kayyem, a former state and federal homeland security official.
Two independent candidates have also launched bids: Evan Falchuk, a business executive and evangelical christian pastor Scott Lively.
Venture capital investor Jeffrey S. McCormick, an independent, is seriously considering a run for the corner office as well.