Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Moving the goal posts on homelessness

A man exited a tent at McKeon Park in Hyannis.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

A man exited a tent at McKeon Park in Hyannis.

It Is Billed as a CRUSADE against homelessness. But it feels more like one against the homeless, or at least against the cost of subsidizing them.

Governor Charlie Baker just came up with a plan to reduce the number of families living in hotels and motels at state expense because they have nowhere else to go.

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It’s simple: Toughen eligibility requirements for gaining access to such housing and, like magic, the numbers will go down.

Where would those families go? The Baker administration said it will commit $5 million to help find more permanent living situations. That sounds good. Except that shelters are full, rental voucher programs are tapped out, and affordable housing is essentially nonexistent — which is why families become homeless in the first place. So without an accompanying plan to provide more affordable, permanent housing, the $5 million means little or nothing. Meanwhile, restricting eligibility just makes it harder for families in need of assistance.

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Mayor Martin J. Walsh agrees: Eligibility should not be changed for those in need of emergency shelter, a spokesman said.

After speaking to Congress on Thursday, Pope Francis lunched with the homeless in Washington, D.C., to highlight his call for compassion for the poor. But compassion only goes so far. How it translates into policy is what counts.

In Los Angeles, officials just announced a plan to declare “a state of emergency on homelessness,” with a pledge to commit $100 million towards permanent housing and shelter.

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently unveiled a $22 million mental health initiative aimed at helping a growing homeless population. In advance of the pope’s visit to New York, de Blasio also announced a partnership between the Roman Catholic Church and the city to provide 150 beds to people now living on the streets.

Meanwhile, there’s tension between helping the homeless and getting them out of the way. In Madison, Wis., the homeless who had been sleeping outside City Hall will be banned from doing that as of Oct. 1. The city’s mayor ties the problem to a lack of affordable housing as well as to “Madison’s reputation as a cozy liberal bastion,” reported The New York Times.

According to federal data, Massachusetts experienced one of the highest increases of homeless people from 2013 to 2014. But it also has one of the lowest rates of unsheltered homeless people. As the only right-to-shelter state, Massachusetts must provide shelter when families 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 Baker administration is now trying to disqualify two of those groups: families “living in irregular sleeping conditions” or in places “unfit for human habitation.” According to a Globe report, they account for roughly 40 percent of families who received emergency housing in the first half of this year. Under Baker’s proposal, once those are determined to be the reasons for homelessness, the person wouldn’t be able to access shelters or state aid for a motel.

This proposed policy is connected to Baker’s pledge when he took office to reduce the number of families in hotels and motels to zero before the end of his first term. Advocates agree hotels and motels are not good family environments. But they are better than the street.

They are also expensive. According to the Baker administration, $40 million is allocated for hotels and motels for the homeless for the current fiscal year. So advocates fear that Baker’s ultimate goal is simply to eliminate a budget line item without providing for those families presently covered by it. As of Sept. 15, the Globe reported there were 1,259 families in hotels and motels. There were also 3,233 families in shelters.

A true war on homelessness would address the tide of displacement and gentrification that’s changing greater Boston. As Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, points out, “Any strategy to address homelessness that does not include housing will ultimately fail.”

There’s tension between helping the homeless and getting them out of the way.

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Anyone who doesn’t now live in public or subsidized rental housing or doesn’t own their own home is at risk, unless they have an upper-middle-class income.

That economic reality is intensifying the homeless crisis in Massachusetts. Denying families access to shelter won’t change it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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