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Boston city councilors mull creating a commission to tackle family homelessness

The skyline seen from Boston Harbor.
The skyline seen from Boston Harbor.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The Boston City Council is considering whether to create a special commission to combat family homelessness in the city, which some local authorities have called a burgeoning crisis, with thousands of children and parents staying in shelters, cars, and hospitals each night. It’s also a problem that has taken on new urgency amid the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic.

The commission would include the mayor, a city councilor, a pair of City Hall cabinet chiefs, the schools superintendent, and the governor, among others. It would exist, according to the proposed ordinance, for “as long as it takes to develop a comprehensive, actionable plan to end family homelessness, up to 5 years from the founding.”

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The panel would work to identify gaps in resources for homeless families, conduct a cost analysis of the problem, and generate a thorough plan that would unite city resources in a coordinated effort that would lead to the end of family homelessness.

At a Monday afternoon council hearing conducted via Zoom, Danielle Ferrier, the CEO of Heading Home, a housing and shelter provider, said that both the city and state lack a strategic and systemic approach to preventing and addressing family homelessness. Services, she said, are hard to access and limited, and there are inconsistent data regarding the problem.

“The goal is for the city and the state and the feds, ideally, for all of those to coordinate,” she said.

Advocates want the commission to report its recommendations to the council within a year, said Christi Staples, a vice president at UnitedWay Massachusetts Bay. Any plan should address structural racism that leads to homelessness, according to her slideshow presentation at the hearing.

Before the hearing, Larry Seamans, president of the human services provider FamilyAid Boston, said that every night in the city there are more than 3,800 children and parents who are homeless, living in shelters, cars, and emergency rooms, among other places. In addition, he said, there are more than 10,000 children and parents “doubled up,” living with another family in residences not meant for two families in order to make ends meet.

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Boston’s high cost of living, including rents, is a driving factor for the problem, especially at a time when wages for working families are stagnant, Seamans said. For a family of three to live comfortably in the city, the household income should be at least $90,000, he said.

“I think the real challenge is poverty, and that’s only going to get worse for working families caught up in the pandemic’s economic fallout,” he said.

Family homelessness, he said, is “probably one of the most pressing issues in the city of Boston.”

Boston, he said, has the third-largest total population of homeless parents and children among American cities.

“It’s a crisis and it’s only going to get worse,” he said.

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, who sponsored the proposal, thinks it is important to name the crisis “and then attach a task list or action plan.”

“If we don’t do that, it simply becomes fodder for conversation and just a talking point,” she said in a phone interview prior to the hearing.

Family homelessness, according to Essaibi-George’s proposal, is “solvable and preventable with a concrete, actionable plan that coordinates all necessary city resources to end family homelessness in Boston.”

She said about 5,000 Boston Public Schools students are homeless.

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“Those are our families,” she said. “Those are our kids.”

Funding for an administrator of the special commission exists in the city’s current operating budget; the salary range would be $69,000 to $98,000, Essaibi-George said.

According to her proposal, there is a need to understand the scope of family homelessness, “particularly the educational and health impacts on homeless children.”

While state government oversees the an emergency shelter program, its resources “are neither designed nor enough to end this statewide crisis,” according to the City Council proposal.

The Globe reported in January that Massachusetts had the highest percentage increase in family homelessness of any state since 2007, according to federal data.

Massachusetts is the only state with a right to shelter, which means that if families can prove they are homeless for an eligible reason, such as a no-fault eviction or a natural disaster, the state is required to provide shelter to them.

As of Monday, there were 2,886 families in the state’s emergency assistance system, which includes shelters and motels.

“The problem is absolutely getting worse during the pandemic," Essaibi-George said.

Zoe Greenberg of Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.