WOBURN — On the same day the state’s emergency shelters hit their capacity limit, a letter slid under Stacey’s door.
The hotel where she’d been living with her 12-year-old daughter and their two dogs since the end of the summer was finally kicking them out. Her savings had run out weeks ago. She owed the hotel $5,333.30.
“You have refused to check out and refused to pay,” the letter read. “YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED TO REMOVE YOURSELF FROM THE … PREMISES IMMEDIATELY.”
Stacey panicked, threw up. She had nowhere to go, so she resolved to go nowhere. She already had been evicted twice in less than two years. What could she do but ride out a third removal, hoping to squeeze out every night of shelter before a court made it official?
“I know my actions right now are scummy,” she said one morning, sitting in the lobby as a hotel worker eyed her disapprovingly. “But I don’t like people thinking I’m a scumbag by nature.”
Two days later, a manager showed up at her door with a police officer. She hadn’t been at the hotel long enough to gain tenant rights. There would be no 30-day notice. Her dark-eyed, curly-haired daughter — a clever, watchful child — was in the room to see her mother dissolve again as the manager issued his edict: They had three days to get out.
In no rational, compassionate society would Stacey, 46, and her daughter be in this predicament. They are exactly the kind of family for whom this state’s nation-leading right-to-shelter law appears designed: desperate, unlucky souls who cannot afford to pay for housing — and for whom homelessness has set off a cascade of disastrous and costly side effects, harming their health and their futures. Yet, here they are.
If only they were outliers.
This is a right-to-shelter state in name only. It is a promise kept just for those families who manage to meet the strict — for many, ridiculously strict — requirements to qualify for state-funded emergency shelters. Each year, the state formally denies hundreds of families seeking a temporary place to stay. Many more seek emergency shelter but never complete an application.
In the last three months of 2022, there were 2,452 applications and requests for emergency shelter in Massachusetts, according to the latest state figures available. Of those, 840 families were granted shelter, and another 60 entered a rental assistance program called HomeBASE. That approval rate was higher than usual, reflecting the influx of migrants seeking housing. The state formally denied emergency shelter to 358 applicants in that period. And about 1,200 who requested help were neither approved nor denied, but failed to submit formal applications because they were told they were ineligible, or were defeated by the daunting process.
Many of the families denied shelter — about a quarter of them — can’t afford rent, but they don’t meet the system’s ludicrously low income cut-offs either. Others are denied because they were evicted from subsidized housing and found to be at fault, which shuts them out of emergency shelter for three years. Or they have retirement accounts or other assets that disqualify them, even if it isn’t much money and will be spent down on necessities soon. Or they give up on their applications, defeated by the byzantine application process, or discouraged by overwhelmed state housing coordinators who tell them they haven’t a chance.
The recent arrival of thousands of immigrants has put an unprecedented strain on the emergency shelter system. But make no mistake — that system was broken to begin with. And not by accident, but by design: To avoid precisely the kind of overload our shelters are seeing right now, the system has long been set up to make sure not everyone who needs help gets it.
That is a choice, not an act of nature. And we can choose to change it.
Massachusetts leads the nation when it comes to housing poor people. And we are finally at a point where our leaders agree that the lack of affordable housing is a crisis we must face head-on. But look closer, and it becomes obvious that, even here, the right to shelter is no right at all for many people. And that was true long before Governor Maura Healey capped the system at 7,500 families this fall, forcing new applicants onto waiting lists.
Hotels all over Massachusetts are packed with people, many of them employed, stuck in the special hell between too-poor and not-poor-enough. They’re unable to get off years-long wait lists for subsidized housing. They’re priced out of the rental and property market. They can’t come up with the thousands they’d need to hand over to sign a lease. They don’t make enough to convince landlords to choose them over prospective tenants who can more easily afford the high rents our cruelly constricted housing market encourages.
And so people like Stacey pay by the night or the week, racking up hotel bills in $100 and $200 increments that would add up to more than the rent on an apartment, if only they could save it all and get one. Without kitchens and stability and the energy to eat more cheaply, they pay for costly meal deliveries. They rent storage facilities for their belongings and spend too much to replace what they’ve left behind. Being poor is expensive, being homeless even more so.
And they’re not just in hotels. They sleep in cars for days or months at a time. They endure deplorable conditions in overcrowded apartments. They double up with friends or family who cannot afford to house them — and who may even lose their own housing for giving them refuge. They stay with family members or partners who abuse them, or otherwise make their lives miserable.
They pass day after desperate, deeply boring day fretting about tomorrow, consumed with guilt over the kids paying the price for their parents’ misfortunes and mistakes.
“I never thought I’d be in a situation like this,” Stacey said. “My poor child, she has anxiety anyway, but now she can overhear things, she’s constantly worried about money: ‘Do we have enough for this? Are we poor?’”
Stacey’s daughter is afraid the kids at school will find out she has been living in a hotel. The girl asked to be excluded from photographs, and Stacey asked that their last name be withheld.
“I like to be anonymous,” the girl said on a recent morning, playing Bloons TD6 on her cellphone, taking in her mother’s every word. She recently skipped homework that required her to draw a map of her bedroom. How could she do it and keep her secret?
“She needs a real therapist,” Stacey said of her daughter. “She needs someone to talk to that isn’t me.”
They should have been in emergency shelter, and getting therapy and other health services, long ago.
Stacey’s mother sold the family house where they were all living in the fall of 2021, and as far as Stacey can tell, gave the proceeds to a man she met online.
“She liquidated everything she had,” Stacey recalled.
Her mother died of COVID in December 2021. Four months later, Stacey and her daughter were evicted from the house she grew up in. “Occupant is a squatter,” the eviction summons read. They left with next to nothing.
“Those people threw out all our stuff,” her daughter said of the buyers, looking up from her cellphone. “What good people! I’d give them a gold star if I had one.”
Stacey worked as a bank teller and in retail in the past, but she hasn’t had a job for years. Her health has made it impossible: She is overweight, her knees so damaged she can barely walk. She has deteriorated further in the last two years. She has diabetes; taking 10 steps leaves her breathless.
She is also deeply depressed. Body-shamed her whole life, reluctant to let her daughter be seen with her, and now unable to get outside, she has nothing to do all day but stare at four walls and a cellphone for hour after endless hour.
“I have been in such a hole, in such a dark place through this whole thing, I’ve lost the ability to care about anything,” she said. “Any energy I had to care had to go to my daughter. I don’t go out, I don’t talk to anybody, because it is humiliating. I can’t interview for a job looking the way I do.”
Stacey is also open-hearted, curious about the world, warm and chatty. She loves reading and obscure Scandinavian music, is delighted by her daughter’s quick wit. She dotes on her dogs, Westley and sickly Andy, two short-legged mutts who won’t let strangers near her.
After they hastily left the family home in June 2022, Stacey and her daughter moved to a Motel 6 in Danvers, where they had plenty of company: The down-at-heel hotel was stacked with people living in the same netherworld, paying by the night to avoid living on the street.
“All the people were so nice,” she recalled, “but they were all people that society would say don’t look right.”
She applied for emergency shelter but was thwarted, besieged by the system’s Kafkaesque rules and requirements. The Healey administration is working to simplify the application process, but until that is real, we ask way too much of those seeking help.
To qualify for shelter, families at their lowest, most chaotic moments must present a laundry list of credentials: Social Security cards, birth certificates, school enrollment records, verification of disabilities or medical conditions, recent pay stubs, bank records — documents that may be in storage or in an apartment they had to flee. They must prove their income is low enough, their assets meager enough, and their housing options nil. They must provide three years of detailed housing history, complete with dates and contact details of those who have sheltered them, and reasons why they had to leave. State workers have sometimes gone down such lists and leaned on those former hosts to change their minds, said Laura Massie, senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. Those who work with homeless families say they are bedeviled by technology issues, their applications slowed because they lack access to computers or printers.
Families that look eligible on paper and can provide some proof of their status are supposed to get an initial placement, then 30 days to submit their remaining documents. But often, a housing coordinator will require far more before a family is approved. Sometimes, whether a family sleeps in a car or behind a grocery store comes down to dumb luck — whether their case is handled by one state worker or another; whether they have a housing advocate or an attorney to help them through the morass.
Stacey was fortunate to have her case shepherded by Katie Day, a caseworker at Family Promise North Shore Boston Inc, a tiny, heroic Beverly nonprofit that helps people rejected or defeated by the shelter system.
Initially, housing coordinators at what is now the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which oversees the shelter system, said Stacey didn’t qualify for shelter because she had received $20,000 from her mother’s estate after she was evicted. Applicants for shelter are denied if they have assets worth more than $5,000. But that money was gone almost as soon as Stacey got it, spent on attorney fees, unpaid rent, and hotel bills. So Day had to gather up all the receipts proving the money was no more.
Day said Stacey — then on cash assistance of under $700 per month — also ran afoul of the state’s income requirements: To enter shelter, families must be at or below 115 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $1,890 per month for a family of two. It is an absurdly low threshold when the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Essex County is $2,827 per month. Stacey had gone briefly over the limit because, for a time, friends and family were sending cash gifts by Venmo to help keep her off the street. And the fact that she was getting that help putting a roof over her daughter’s head meant Stacey had “alternative feasible housing,” which the state defines so expansively it would be comical, if wasn’t enraging.
“Families willing and able to spend a night on the street are more likely to get placed,” said Rachel Hand, executive director at Family Promise. “People with disabilities get overlooked because they can’t do that.”
There was no way living in a hotel was feasible for Stacey, or anyone, past a certain point.
It is only bearable because of her boyfriend, Ben Cauble. They both went to Beverly High and reconnected a few years ago, after he lost his wife to cancer and she lost her longtime boyfriend to an overdose. They are tender and funny together, interested in books and writing, and in giving Stacey’s daughter as good a life as they can manage. Ben, a gentle, long-haired, heavy metal enthusiast, lives with his elderly father in Bedford, N.H., and works for a supermarket. Several times a week, he makes the one-hour drive to Woburn to shop for food, do laundry, tend to Stacey’s daughter and the dogs, and lift her sagging spirits.
The one thing he can’t do is give the family he adores somewhere to live: His father is allergic to dogs, and his apartment is way too small for them all. Ben is mystified that Stacey could have no options, that her applications for subsidized housing have gone nowhere, that nobody in power can see how desperate her situation is.
“She can’t live in the car,” he said, his usual calm breaking. “You have a right-to-shelter state, you can’t get shelter. It’s the stupidest thing ever!”
Day, from Family Promise, said Stacey’s first application for shelter finally timed out because she couldn’t gather the required documents fast enough. She would have had a better chance if the hotel had evicted her to the street, but she couldn’t, wouldn’t, sleep in her car. She was too unwell. She couldn’t do it to her daughter. And how could everybody even fit, along with the dogs that were so precious to them both?
“They’re the last piece of home we have,” Stacey said. “They’re our lifeline.”
So they limped on at the Motel 6, until they were eventually evicted from there, too, this past summer. Around that time, the state finally tracked down her daughter’s father and collected years of child support he owed. It was a huge windfall — some $30,000 — but by then, Stacey was too far in the hole, her life too out of control, to get back on her feet. She had a pile of past-due bills to pay, and she still needed somewhere to live. No landlord would accept a tenant with multiple evictions, let alone one with funds that were finite, and shrinking fast.
The windfall drained away — on two more hotels after the Motel 6, more food deliveries, dog food, and clothes for her growing girl — and then on a $189-a-night room at a Woburn hotel, where the money lasted until it didn’t, and that letter slid under the door.
On a recent Sunday morning, Ben was loading the family’s possessions onto a luggage cart, and throwing away the food that had piled up in the room’s little kitchenette. There was no room for it in the run-down hotel down the street, where he had paid for two nights.
“We’ve become a very pitiful little family,” Stacey said.
She truly had nothing, again. They’d have to approve her for shelter, wouldn’t they?
After she reached out to the governor’s office, a housing coordinator opened a brand new shelter application for her. She reconnected with Katie Day from Family Promise, who went to work again, going to a courthouse to pick up documents, gathering up bank statements and eviction notices, and a letter from Ben to say he couldn’t help Stacey any more. Ben’s father paid for a few more nights at the hotel. Day found donors who could extend Stacey’s stay a few more after that.
Finally, on Nov. 17, Stacey was approved for emergency shelter.
Better late than never, but not much better. Because the shelter system is full, Stacey and her daughter have been put on the waiting list until a spot that meets their needs opens up.
She is grateful that the state finally sees her. But she is also terrified. What if they place her somewhere awful, or too far from her daughter’s school? What will she do without Ben, on whom she relies for everything? Shelters often have strict rules about visitors and prohibit sleepovers. What if a spot doesn’t open up at all, or appears too late, and they get thrown out of this hotel, too?
Stacey and her daughter aren’t asking for much. They need a place to gather themselves, “someplace to put my feet until I get back up on them,” as Stacey puts it — a few months of knowing where they’ll be tomorrow.
All they want is the shelter we claim is their right. All they want is refuge, and the luxury of hoping for more.
“I just want a cabin in the woods,” her 12-year-old said. “Can I not be a forest creature?”