Cristal is a 2-year-old girl born with spina bifida, a condition that has required multiple surgeries and left her with limited sensation in her lower extremities.
Over the past month, she has endured long, uncomfortable commutes between the Lowell homeless shelter where the state is housing her family and frequent appointments with her medical providers in Boston, according to recent court filings. With traffic, the drive can take two hours each way, putting her at risk of pressure sores. It’s a situation one of her doctors calls “intolerable.”
Her mother, Jocelin Gruilart, is asking a judge to direct the state to move the family from the shelter to “an appropriate setting in the Boston area, including a hotel room if no other space is available,” according to an emergency motion in Suffolk Superior Court.
But the administration of Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who won election in 2014 pledging to end the practice of sending homeless families to hotels and motels at state expense, is fighting the motion. A state lawyer says agreeing to the request “could open the floodgates to who-knows-what down the road.” Instead, the government notes that the family’s current accommodations in Lowell are handicap accessible, and it intends to move them to the Boston area when possible.
The case illustrates the human dimension of one of thorniest entitlement program debates facing Massachusetts as Baker works to reduce the number of homeless families in motels at state expense to zero. There were 1,500 families in such accommodations when he took office in January 2015, but just 55 on Monday night.
On one hand, advocates and lawmakers of both parties agree that motels are often a poor option for housing families, separating them from the social support of relatives and friends, a clean place for children to play, and a kitchen.
On the other, advocates say a temporary stay in a motel may be precisely what’s needed for certain families with unusual requirements — such as Cristal and her parents.
Philip Mangano, a longtime advocate for the homeless who worked for the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and who has repeatedly lauded the Baker administration for its efforts to reduce the number of families in motels, bemoaned the state not placing Cristal closer to her doctors.
“There are two disabilities involved here,” he said. “The physical disability of a young girl which requires care. And the moral disability of a state agency that needs treatment.”
Mangano, who is based in Boston, has spent decades decrying “ideologues” who press homeless families into “welfare motels” where they remain mired, sometimes for years.
(State data from last week show families in state shelters have stayed an average of 297 days, but families in a state-funded motel have stayed an average of 536 days.)
But after reading court filings about Cristal, he said common sense and humanity must sometimes override valid policy constructs.
“Why should the Baker administration sully their intent and their reputation with a case where the doctors are saying this is injurious to the child?” he asked.
Massachusetts is the country’s sole right-to-shelter state. That means when eligible poor families can show they are homeless because of domestic violence, natural disaster, no-fault eviction, or substantial health and safety risks, the state is mandated to provide housing.
Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, a nonprofit that aims to end homelessness, said the case is an indication of the ongoing severity of the state’s homelessness crisis, despite the recession ending in June 2009.
“The state has made tremendous progress on getting out of motels and reducing the overall caseload. But the fact remains that the system is still serving double the number of families from before the recession — and many of the families have complex medical, employment, and other needs,” she said. “The shelter system alone can’t solve this. We need broader support from across state agencies and communities.”
The family declined to speak with the Globe through their Greater Boston Legal Services lawyers. But court documents filed in recent days outline the story of Cristal, who turns 3 this week; Gruilart, her 26-year-old mother; and Cristal’s father, who is 64.
The family entered the Lowell shelter on April 12, after living in Boston. Data from a public records request show they were one of 17 families to enter the broader system that day.
The family moved to Boston from the Dominican Republic this winter, according to their lawyers, in order to access specialized medical care for Cristal, who is a US citizen, as is her father.
In filings, Gruilart alleges that the family’s placement in Lowell was described as an “emergency” stopgap until Boston-area housing could be found. But a month has dragged on in Lowell, from where she says she has had to take Cristal to frequent appointments 40 miles away.
A May 10 letter from a social worker says Cristal’s parents report she is “very uncomfortable” on her trips to Boston. The social worker wrote the child has eight upcoming appointments over the next month and indicated they are in Boston.
In a letter filed with the court legal papers, Boston Children’s Hospital Dr. Nak Hyun Choi wrote that it is important that Cristal, his patient, live as close to Boston as possible.
“She has decreased mobility of her lower extremities from her myelomeningocele,” he said, referring to a form of spina bifida, “and thus makes longer commutes to the frequent appointments intolerable for the patient.”
In oral arguments before a judge last week, the state acknowledged Cristal’s situation is not ideal but warned that bending to this request could upend years of hard work to reduce the number of families in hotels and motels.
This is not a situation, Samuel M. Furgang, a lawyer for the state, argued, “of such grave nature as to intrude on the important policy work of the agency and make an individuated decision that could open the floodgates to who-knows-what down the road for every other family that’s going to claim some similar kind of harm.”
In his written argument, Furgang underscores that the family is in a new shelter housed in a wheelchair-accessible unit with a private bathroom. The facility offers social services, security, and room for physical therapy, he writes. And the state intends to move them when handicap accessible shelter space becomes available closer to Boston.
Gruilart’s emergency request is part of a broader lawsuit filed by Greater Boston Legal Services. It alleges that Baker’s push to end the use of motels as housing of last resort has resulted in the state illegally denying eligible families housing, and it seeks class-action status.
The administration did not comment on the specifics of Cristal’s case but said it looks forward to “vigorously defending” the Department of Housing and Community Development in the matter.
Samantha Kaufman, a spokeswoman for the housing agency, said the “administration believes homelessness is a human tragedy and that sheltering homeless families in motel rooms is the most disruptive and least effective way of meeting this tragedy.”
She said the agency has worked to re-house and re-shelter thousands of homeless children into more sustainable situations, and it is proud to partner with local shelters that try to meet families’ specific needs.
“DHCD takes all requests for transfers very seriously and makes needed adjustments to offer the most suitable living arrangements,” she said in a statement.
Another hearing is scheduled for Wednesday on Cristal’s case.Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.