Ivelisse Florentino and her three children used to start their days at a homeless shelter in Haverhill, near New Hampshire. For months, the kids commuted hours on public transit to Boston Public Schools and Florentino to her job cleaning offices in Newton.
After the family joined a class-action lawsuit, a judge ordered the Baker administration to move Florentino and her kids, including one with a knee problem, closer to Boston. The state placed them in a room at a Waltham motel.
“It’s OK,” she said in Spanish through her lawyer. “We’ve got a little kitchenette and room with three beds. It’s better than the shelter.”
Florentino’s story puts a spotlight on one of the state’s most difficult and emotional entitlement program questions, now at the core of the lawsuit: Is putting a homeless family in a taxpayer-funded motel room ever the right choice?
A Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled this month that Governor Charlie Baker’s efforts to move homeless families out of motels and into other settings go too far.
Under Baker, the state has sharply reduced the number of families housed in motels, which he calls the most disruptive and least effective way to address the “human tragedy” of homelessness. Baker and advocates agree motels are often a poor option for housing homeless families because the move frequently separates them from the support of relatives and friends.
When Baker took office at the beginning of 2015, there were 1,500 families in motels at state expense; as of Wednesday night there were 45. Baker has pledged to get the number to zero by the end of his first term.
The recent ruling, a preliminary injunction, threatens to stall his efforts.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Wilkins wrote the Department of Housing and Community Development’s “policy of denying motel placements” and putting families in sometimes faraway shelters presents “unique problems for persons with disability who need to visit their treatment providers.”
He ordered the state to house families with recognized disabilities in a motel if available shelters couldn’t accommodate their circumstances and the motel could.
Ruth Bourquin, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, said the court “has recognized that the administration’s unlawful decision not to place families in hotels — even when a hotel will accommodate their needs better than another form of shelter — has made the situation worse for many families.”
While the ruling applies broadly, the judge had mandated the Baker administration move several specific families, including Florentino and her children. He said leaving them in accommodations that did not address their disability needs and were too far from their home community would not comply with the state’s right-to-shelter law.
That law includes provisions mandating that people’s disabilities are accommodated, that they are housed within 20 miles of their home community as soon as possible, and that the state make “every effort” for children to be able to attend school in the district in which they were enrolled before they became homeless.
To reach his goal, Baker’s administration has, with extremely limited exceptions, stopped putting homeless children and their parents in motels.
‘We’ve got a little kitchenette and room with three beds. It’s better than the shelter.’
The administration tries to steer homeless children and their parents to relatives or friends. Or, if that doesn’t work, it places them in shelters, even if those rooms are sometimes far away from work and school and can’t accommodate a family member’s documented disabilities.
But with limited shelter space in the Boston area, some advocates say motels are the least bad option for certain families to stay close to the services that can get them back on their feet.
For Florentino, the journey to the emergency shelter system was fraught.
She was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States two years ago. She lived with the cousin of the father of her two younger children, but things didn’t work out and the father left. Later, there was trouble with the cousin, who, she said, insulted her kids and got bothered by everything they did.
It was untenable, and Florentino, who said she is in the country legally, ended up in the shelter in Haverhill late last year.
But that, too, became untenable over time with the grueling commute and other troubles, she said in the interview, which was translated from Spanish to English by her lawyer. And now her family is in a motel. (State officials said they can’t confirm Florentino or any specific person is in the emergency housing system because of privacy requirements.)
Florentino’s story is just one among thousands of homeless families.
On Wednesday night, in addition to the 45 families in motels, there were 3,502 families in shelters.
Massachusetts is unique. It is the country’s only right-to-shelter state. That means 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 substantial health and safety risks, the state is mandated to provide housing.
The state spent about $180 million on emergency family housing in the fiscal year that ended in June and hundreds of millions more dollars on other programs to help Massachusetts’ homeless.
At the beginning of this week, a state-contracted shelter room cost on average $113 per night, while a motel cost $145 per night.
While the total number of people in motels is much lower than in previous years, the rate of families who move out of motels into other housing has declined. That could be, in part, because of the lawsuit, filed in December.
But, officials say, it’s also because the families with some of the thorniest situations are the ones left in motels. So finding permanent housing for them can be tough.
On average, the families in motels are bigger and have been in the system much longer, state data show.
The Baker administration declined to make Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash available for an interview about the lawsuit and the emergency housing program.
But in a statement, housing department spokeswoman Samantha Kaufman said it has added nearly 1,700 family housing units over the last five years and “has worked collaboratively to reduce the number of families in motels from 1,500 to 45 since 2015.”
Kaufman said the department is “committed to further expanding capacity for our most vulnerable families and vigorously defending the department in this matter.”E-mail Joshua Miller at email@example.com.