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editorial

Motels are a poor solution to homelessness in Mass.

LAST JANUARY, state officials promised to stop placing homeless families in hotels and motels. The practice would end by June 2014, said Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of housing. But as the Globe recently reported, the trend lines run the other way.

In October, an average of nearly 2,100 families a night — an all-time high — were temporarily housed in hotel and motel rooms because there was nowhere else for them to go. According to records reviewed by the Globe, state spending on motels and hotels has grown from $1 million five years ago to $46 million today. Stopping the practice “was our goal. It continues to be our goal,” said Gornstein. Unfortunately, a succession of state officials made the same promise over the past 20 years — and broke it.

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Rooms in hotels and motels become Plan B for the homeless whenever the state runs out of emergency shelter space. The other option, of course, is to help families find permanent quarters. But in recent years, rent subsidies have been cut back. The state’s long-term housing assistance, the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, is currently budgeted at $57 million — up $21 million from two years ago, but a long way from the $120 million that was once allocated to the program. Skimping on such initiatives doesn’t make homelessness go away; it just increases the need for emergency shelters.

Massachusetts is in a difficult position. The number of homeless people in shelters and living on Bay State streets has risen 14 percent since 2010 to nearly 20,000 in January 2013, even as homelessness has declined nationally. At the same time, cuts in federal aid limit the state’s ability to respond.

The Patrick administration is committed to creating more affordable housing, Gornstein maintains. To that end, $180 million is allocated for housing in the current capital budget. Over the past year and a half, some 400 vacant public housing units were also repaired and brought back on line, in keeping with the administration’s goal to preserve and improve affordable housing that already exists. According to Gornstein, the state is providing “unprecedented outreach,” including housing search assistance and other supports to get families into permanent housing.

Yet these measures only go so far. The state needs more long-term rental assistance programs that target families who are at risk of homelessness, or already homeless. Homelessness also can’t be divorced from the broader problem of housing in Massachusetts: Because there hasn’t been enough new market-rate construction to satisfy pent-up demand for housing, a chronic shortage of units increases rents up and down the price spectrum. Families in economic distress suffer the consequences.

Regardless, motel rooms are bad settings for families and expensive options for taxpayers. It’s time to break the cycle of broken promises and come up with a plan to put the money spent on hotels for the homeless into permanent and affordable housing.

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