Metro

Number of homeless families in state-funded motels drops

The state has long placed homeless families in hotels and motels at state expense.
Globe Staff/File
The state has long placed homeless families in hotels and motels at state expense.

The number of homeless families living in hotels and motels at state expense — the last resort for Massachusetts’ most vulnerable residents — has dropped dramatically since Governor Charlie Baker took office promising to end the practice.

On Jan. 8, 2015, there were 1,500 families in state-funded motels and hotels. On Monday, there were 538, according to data obtained through a public records request.

The drop, administration officials and advocates say, is partly the result of a shift in strategy by the Baker administration.

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Initially, Baker — a Republican who has pledged to reduce the hotel-motel number to zero by the end of his first term — tried to sharply narrow eligibility for emergency housing. But he was rebuked by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

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The new approach has included stepping up a program instituted by his predecessor that provides up to $8,000 to help pay for rent, utilities, and other housing expenses so families can stay in their homes, or defray the costs of staying with a friend or relative.

Advocates cautiously praise the administration’s efforts. But they worry that the emphasis on the subsidy, which runs out after a year, and the political impetus to bring the motel number down, is forcing some families into apartments with poor conditions, and is making officials lose sight of the larger goal: Moving families into permanent housing that they can afford.

“Having families in their own apartments can often be better than a long-term hotel stay,” said Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, a nonprofit that aims to end homelessness. “But the challenge — and the obligation — is how do we use short-term subsidies as an alternative to emergency shelter and a pathway to long-term stability, and not as an alternative to permanent housing.”

It shouldn’t, she said, “just be giving families short-term assistance and walking away.”

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Administration officials emphasize that the point of the emergency housing system is to put a roof over a family’s head, not to solve all that ails it. They underscore the state attempts to put every eligible family in safe and proper housing.

And they say they are working to shift a larger number of government services — from social work to addiction rehabilitation — to families before the parents and kids slip into homelessness.

The total number of families in all state-funded housing — motels and shelters — has remained high under the Baker administration: From 4,611 when he took office to 3,821 Monday night.

Still, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash said in an interview that the increased emphasis on the subsidy program, known as HomeBASE, has been successful. Sometimes a relatively modest amount of help can be enough to make sure people don’t return to the emergency housing system, he said, and the number of families who need shelter from the state again is “startlingly low.”

Of the overall population of families that the state recognizes as homeless and offers emergency assistance to, 15 percent will come back twice or more, said Ash spokesman Paul McMorrow. That is, three out of 20 families who get placed in a shelter, motel, or receive HomeBASE assistance end up back into the system. Less than 2 percent come back to the system more than twice.

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“Eight thousand dollars isn’t a lot of money, especially in certain housing markets,” Ash said. But there are “episodes that cause somebody to spiral down. So if you can just get them caught up on their rent, or help them pay a major utility bill, that then gets them back on track.”

Still, there’s no way to know for sure whether a family lands on its feet after it leaves the state’s emergency housing system. No one tracks whether a family ends up homeless in another state or goes into a private shelter; whether the mother or father become incarcerated or have their kids taken by the Department of Children and Families.

Massachusetts is the country’s only right-to-shelter state. When eligible families — those whose incomes are close to or below the federal poverty level — can show they are homeless because of domestic violence, natural disaster, no-fault eviction, or health and safety risks, the state is mandated to provide housing.

That can take the form of a room in a shelter or, if there aren’t any left, a hotel or motel.

Since Baker took office, 254 new family shelter units have been added and on Monday night, there were 3,283 families in shelters.

Families eligible for emergency housing instead can take HomeBASE, working with regional housing specialists to figure out a tenable arrangement. The $8,000 can pay for rent and the like, moving expenses, and child care, to help recipients hold down a job. In recent years, it has helped thousands of poor families leave shelters and motels, or avoid staying in them all together.

The motels and hotels, which cost the state an average of $90 per night, are often seen as a poor option for housing families because they separate them from the social support of relatives and friends, familiar schools, and kitchen equipment such as a stove.

But amid economic turmoil at the end of the last decade, Massachusetts ended up placing thousands of families in them, often for many months.

On the campaign trail during his successful bid for governor, Baker called the practice a “human tragedy,” said he would work to eliminate it in his first year, and promised to do so by the time his four years were up.

The administration of Baker’s predecessor, Governor Deval Patrick, had hoped to reduce the number of families living in hotels-motels from more than a thousand to zero by the summer of 2012, but there were still 1,500 families in such state-funded accommodations when he left the State House in January 2015.

State spending on emergency housing for families has skyrocketed in recent years, even as the economy has improved. In the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, the state spent $151 million for hotels, motels, and shelter rooms. In the fiscal year that ends in June, the state is projected to spend $196 million — and an additional $34 million on HomeBASE.

Ash said expenses would come down in time, as the state works to help families before they become homeless.

“Our main objective is to treat the family well,” he said. “And then if we can save money along the way, that’s a good thing too. Eventually we’ll get to a point where we are, in fact, saving money because we’ve dealt with the problem so far upstream that it’ll be less expensive dealing with it.”

Advocates say, despite the administration’s efforts, the main underlying problem — a dearth of housing low-income people can afford — remains.

“I know this is a really thorny problem,” said Ruth Bourquin, a lawyer with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute who specializes in family homelessness. “But the ultimate solution is to greatly increase the resources for long-term affordable housing.”

Ash said looking at the problem of homelessness from a wide perspective can “get you overwhelmed.” But the administration has focused on tackling it piece by piece.

Ash said the administration has focused on specific hotels and motels. It sets a deadline for moving all homeless families out, and then uses “intensive case management,” including social workers and others, and tools like rental vouchers, to get each family in a better living situation.

“You know the old joke,” he said, “ ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ ”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos. Click here to subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics.