Domingo Flores is a New York transplant who settled in Massachusetts after falling hard for a local woman. But the couple’s relationship faltered, and by August, Flores and his son were homeless.
Flores, who was doing per diem work at a local hospital, turned to Community Teamwork Inc. in Lowell for help. There, he found the assistance he needed to get back on his feet. For nearly four months, the state picked up the tab for a hotel room in Chelmsford while Flores honed his interview skills and searched for full-time work.
In October, the 36-year-old single father landed a security job at Lowell Community Health Center. A promotion soon followed.
Today, Flores earns about $16 per hour, nearly twice what he was making just a few months ago. And with help from a relatively new state initiative called HomeBASE, an acronym for Building Alternatives to Shelter, he secured a two-bedroom apartment within walking distance of his job.
“I went to CTI for the educational employment program, but they did so much more for me,” said Flores, who is settling into his new place and looking forward to celebrating the holidays with his 17-year-old son in an apartment they can call their own. “Before, I had to work odd hours. I felt I needed to be home more with my son. CTI made that possible.”
Armed with an influx of HomeBASE funding totaling more than $17 million for the Globe North region this fiscal year, local agencies are scrambling to help homeless families climb out of poverty.
There is a great sense of urgency in their work because once a family is placed in a state-subsidized shelter or hotel, members have 32 weeks to use HomeBASE funds to relocate. For hundreds of homeless families, a mid-February deadline looms.
The HomeBASE program, which started Aug. 1, 2011, received $83 million for the fiscal year that started July 1, up from $65 million last fiscal year.
In the Globe North region, Community Teamwork and the Lynn Housing Authority and Neighborhood Development administer HomeBASE funds for the Merrimack Valley and the North Shore, respectively. Both agencies contract with local organizations, including the Lynn Shelter Association, Emmaus, Inc. in Haverhill, and Wellspring House in Gloucester, to provide case management and support services.
In November, the state began giving Community Teamwork and Lynn Housing incremental incentives that can total as much as $1,250 for each family they move out of hotels. The agencies are using the additional money to support case managers who work with the homeless families living in hotels.
“We are on target to meet our goal to move 80 families out of hotels and motels by mid-January and into permanent housing,” said Ed Cameron, Community Teamwork’s associate executive director. “We’ve moved 20 families out of hotels since Nov. 1, putting a bit of a dent in it.”
On the North Shore, Lynn Housing has used HomeBASE funding this fiscal year to help 62 families prevent or end homelessness. Of those, 13 were moved out of hotels since Nov. 1, according to Harry MacCabe, who oversees the HomeBASE program for Lynn Housing. The local success mirrors a statewide trend. On Nov. 19, 1,800 homeless families in Massachusetts were living in state-subsidized hotel rooms, state records show. But in the past month, the number of families leaving hotels for apartments began to steadily outpace those seeking emergency shelter. On Dec. 11, there were 1,766 homeless families in hotels.
“Starting in July, the number of homeless families living in hotels and motels began to stabilize, fluctuating by about 20 families in either direction each week,” said Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, noting that it costs taxpayers an average of $3,000 per month to house a family in a hotel, an option the state resorts to only when its 2,000 shelter beds are full.
“But recently, in the past two months, we’re starting to see a reduction, a decline. All of our efforts are bearing fruit,” he said.
The turnaround can be attributed to the holistic way that local agencies are addressing the issue of family homelessness, Gornstein said, ensuring that struggling families have access to jobs and job training, transportation, and childcare.
“Working in a comprehensive way, as CTI is doing, will lead to greater self-sufficiency,” Gornstein said. “It’s not just about finding families affordable housing; it’s about support.” To that end, the focus has turned from a one-size-fits-all approach to customized plans that are flexible and meet the needs of individual families.
“Rather than coming up with programs and then talking to homeless families and saying ‘pick from these options,’ we’re trying to figure out where their interests lie and what they have an aptitude for,” Cameron said.
He noted that Community Teamwork is partnering with area vocational schools — Shawsheen Valley in Billerica, Whittier Regional in Haverhill, and the technical high schools in Greater Lawrence and Greater Lowell — to match clients with a program that will work for them.
“We want to move them out of minimum-wage jobs into something that will pay well, like machinists, who have the potential to make $28 to $30 an hour, or something in the health care fields,” Cameron said.
In some cases, relocating to an area where relatives can provide a struggling family support is the best option. Lynn Housing has used HomeBASE funding to help four homeless families move to other states: New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
“We’re focusing more on each family’s individual needs,” MacCabe said. “We’re having an in-depth conversation with each family as to what their particular needs are.”
In its spending plan for the current fiscal year, the state allocated $7.2 million in HomeBASE funding to the Lynn Housing Authority and Neighborhood Development to provide families on the North Shore with household assistance for rent and other basic necessities, plus $803,234 to hire additional staff. In the Merrimack Valley, Community Teamwork got $9.9 million in HomeBASE funding for household assistance, plus $1.2 million to hire eight new case managers.
To qualify for HomeBASE, families must meet strict income limits ranging from $1,070 per month for a single person to $2,209 for a family of four. Those who are eligible may receive up to $4,000. The money may be used to rent a moving truck, buy furniture, or pay a required security deposit or first or last month’s rent.
On average, families moving out of a shelter or hotel in the Merrimack Valley are paying $937 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, Cameron said. To help them make ends meet, the state is offering some families state-subsidized rental vouchers. A $6 million increase in funding this fiscal year for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program has translated into 700 new vouchers statewide, Gornstein said.
“What we see in homelessness here in the Merrimack Valley mirrors some of the national conversations about economic inequality and poverty in general,” said Cameron. “For people with minimal education and little job history, it’s hard for them to compete in today’s labor market. Highly skilled workers are chasing after the same jobs that some poorer people are trying to get.”
Given the complexity of the issue, Gornstein said homelessness is expected to remain “an intense focus for at least two years, minimum.”