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They’re poor, but not poor enough to qualify for emergency housing in Massachusetts

The income limits for those seeking emergency housing in our right to shelter state are ludicrously low, leaving desperate families like Tami Mitchell’s stranded.

Mariana, 15, who suffers from seizures, swung her legs over a railing that her grandmother, Tami Mitchell (right), installed on the bed they share as a way to keep her safe in the cramped hotel room where they live with Mariana’s two siblings.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

DANVERS — What does our state’s right to shelter law really mean if we allow Tami Mitchell’s family to live like this?

On Tuesday night, Mitchell, 65, sat on the bed in the hotel room she shares with her three teenage grandchildren, picking through a backpack stuffed with some of the papers documenting the disaster her life has become: The letter certifying that the Beverly apartment fire that made the family homeless two years ago actually happened; the notification from Florida showing she has custody of Maliki, 18, Mariana, 15, and Jay-Den, 14, all of whom she has cared for since they were babies; proof that Maliki has ADHD and bipolar disorder, that Jay-Den has autism and ADHD, that Mariana has autism and a severe seizure disorder; verification that their dogs are service dogs; proof of Mitchell’s lousy credit score and abysmal bank balance; reams of itemized bills from more than a year of living in hotels; a letter rejecting her application for state subsidized housing; and a letter telling her that, despite all of this, she is ineligible for emergency shelter.

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How did she get here? Despite the long, grim paper trail, Mitchell sometimes wonders that herself.

“I worked all my life,” she said. “I’ve never in my life lived like this. Not ever. I’m just praying it stops.”

Tami Mitchell made dinner with what she had on hand in the hotel room where she lives with her three grandchildren: hot dogs, and pasta in tomato soup.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

This right to shelter state has decided this homeless family does not qualify for emergency shelter because, though they are poor, they are not poor enough. Their application was rejected in early September because their disability checks put them $441 per month over the ridiculously low income cutoff. Shelter is available only to those who make less than 115 percent of the federal poverty guideline. When Mitchell applied, only Mariana and Jay-Den lived with her, and her family’s disability checks added up to $2,823 — 136 percent of the guideline, but not nearly enough to feed, clothe, and house three people.

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Each year, the state denies or discourages hundreds of shelter applicants because they fail to meet income requirements so low they would be ludicrous in any state, let alone in one where housing is as expensive as it is in Massachusetts. In the last three months of 2022, the latest period for which state tallies are available, 82 of the 358 people denied emergency shelter were rejected because they were over the income limit. Others did not even bother applying, believing their income, however meager, would make them ineligible.

Those rejections force homeless families — including those with working parents — into overcrowded or dangerous living situations, or to live doubled-up with friends or family who risk their own housing by giving them refuge, or into their cars, or to expensive hotels that suck up every last cent.

They belong in affordable housing. But because there is so little of that to go around in Massachusetts, and because the application process is impossible to navigate without expert help, these families languish in a debilitating, soul-crushing limbo that worsens their predicaments, and their future prospects, every day.

This is where Mitchell and her grandchildren live now.

“I hate begging people for stuff,” she said. “We’re broke. My kids aren’t even going to have Christmas.”

Joyce Mosher, a volunteer with Family Promise North Shore, helped Tami Mitchell apply for subsidized housing in the office at the hotel where she and her family are living, as caseworker Katie Day tracked down documents to send to housing authorities.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Mitchell, her white-blond hair pulled into a ponytail, was wearing one of her grandson’s shirts, because her clothes were stolen from the hotel’s common laundry last week. Mitchell had set tomato soup, pasta, and hot dogs cooking in the little kitchen, and her grandsons were tending to the dinner. An alarm went off on her phone, and she pulled out Mariana’s medicine boxes — two weeks of pills, neatly organized and vital. The girl put down her coloring and swallowed six anti-seizure pills and a vitamin.

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When Mariana has an attack, the whole family springs into action. Her service dog Tee Tee, detects the seizures first, raising the alarm. Her brothers hold their thrashing sister as best they can to keep her safe.

At night, Mitchell barely sleeps in the bed she shares with Mari, what with all her worries and the need to keep watch over the girl. Jay-Den sleeps on a fold-out chair, and Maliki on an air mattress on the floor. The room is remarkably neat, everything in its place at Mitchell’s insistence. The space inside these four walls is the only thing she can control right now.

She and her grandchildren were happy enough in Bradenton, Fla., where they lived for a couple of years until Mitchell’s troubled daughter — the kids’ mother — made it impossible to be there any more. Among other things, Mitchell said, her daughter falsely accused her of assault, took out a restraining order against her, and used Mitchell’s Social Security number to run up thousands in purchases in her name, tanking her credit. In a phone call, a former friend of her daughter’s in Florida backed up Mitchell’s claims.

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To get away from her daughter, Mitchell, born and raised in Lynn, moved her family to Beverly in 2021. They were doing fine at first. All four of them received disability checks — Mitchell has had two bouts of cancer, diabetes, anxiety, and depression — and the payments covered the rent on their three-bedroom apartment. They didn’t have much money to spare, but Mitchell — who always eats last, and little — can make do with whatever food she has on hand. They could even afford takeout once a month.

Malaki, 18, (left) and Jay-Den, 14, waited for dinner to cook in the hotel room where they live with their grandmother and sister.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

They would still be there if a fire in early 2022 hadn’t forced them out. After that, the family lived with friends in Athol for a time, but Mitchell said it didn’t feel safe there for her Black grandsons. They stayed with her other daughter, Elizabeth, a home health aide in East Boston, but that third-floor apartment was crowded and chaotic. Elizabeth has four children and several dogs, and living in a confined space with seven kids and the dogs was especially hard on Mariana.

So Mitchell’s endless hotel odyssey began, including a months-long stay at the Motel 6 in Danvers over the spring and summer. There were a bunch of people there just like her, paying by the week or month because they were unable to save the thousands they’d have to put down to sign a lease, or find a landlord who would rent to them anyway.

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“If the rent is $2,000 a month, landlords want you to make $6,000 a month,” she said. “If I had that kind of money, I would have bought a house!”

In July, as thousands of recent immigrants overwhelmed the emergency shelter system, the state prepared to turn that Motel 6 into one of its shelter sites. When the hotel’s overzealous owners threatened to evict Mitchell and other residents to make room for them, the state eventually demanded that the longtime guests be allowed to stay. But Mitchell had left for the nearby Candlewood Suites by then, and it wasn’t clear the cheaper Motel 6 would even let her back, since she had complained to The Salem News about conditions there.

She may be terrified and overwhelmed, but Mitchell is scrappy, and she will never stop fighting for her kids. She spends all day on her phone, texting and calling anybody she thinks might be able to help.

“Every one of my grandchildren, I love them more than you can believe,” she said. “It’s not their fault their mother didn’t do what she was supposed to.”

Jay-Den, 14, picked up his puppy, Cash, as his sister Mariana, 15, worked on a drawing.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

She has collected people along the way who do what they can. Her daughter Elizabeth helps as best as she is able. A nurse who treated Mari brings food and helps with paperwork. Jay-Den’s Big Brother takes him out for dinner to try to convince the boy to show up at school, despite how hard that can be, given the boy’s sensory disorder. But the hole is deeper than ever this month, and Mitchell is on the precipice.

Maliki moved back in with them recently, so now the family’s monthly disability checks add up to $3,776. The cost of their hotel room for December is $3,093. On top of that, Mitchell must pay for her storage unit, or lose all of their belongings — another $304 — and pay $109 for the family’s cell service, their lifelines. Mari believes Santa will find them this year, and Mitchell cannot bear to see her disappointed. Last month, they got about $400 in food stamps, but Mitchell is not sure she will get anything this month. There is simply no way, even for someone as determined as Mitchell, to make this work.

“I will figure this out, believe me,” she said.

But it’s the state that should be figuring this out. Massachusetts does a better job than any other when it comes to housing homeless families. Yet the income limits for emergency shelter here are simply unjust, and way out of step with other measures of poverty at the state and federal level. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development considers families of four in this part of the state to be “extremely low income” if their incomes are lower than $3,708 per month, and those below $6,183 per month to be “very low income.” That is because housing is so expensive here: The fair market rent for a three-bedroom home is $3,418 per month, according to HUD. Rent that costs more than 30 percent of a family’s income is considered unaffordable.

So, Mitchell’s family is on the brink of being extremely low income according to federal measures, but the state has decided they are currently a full $901 over the four-person family income limit to qualify for shelter. Where is the sense in that?

These numbers augur ill for the thousands of newly arrived migrants currently housed in our overburdened shelter system. Everyone agrees that the best thing for them is to get work permits quickly, start the jobs this state desperately needs to fill, and begin living their lives. But working full time for minimum wage in Massachusetts will put these families into the same in-between world where Mitchell and so many others live.

Advocates and some legislators have tried to pull up the income limits to match the more reasonable SNAP food assistance guidelines, so that families with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level would qualify for emergency shelter, but they’ve had little success.

So, unless something gives, we will continue to have homeless families the state deems insufficiently poor, including working families, living like Mitchell and her grandchildren, or sleeping in their cars.

An exhausted Tami Mitchell stepped out of her hotel’s lobby, where she had been slogging through an application for subsidized housing with workers from Family Promise, to greet her grandchildren as they arrived home from school.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Many of them seek help at Family Promise North Shore, a tiny but mighty nonprofit housed in a church basement in Beverly that specializes in helping those rejected by the shelter system. For at least one week in July, Family Promise had three working clients sleeping in cars with their kids because they exceeded the income limit for shelter and had no alternative, said executive director Rachel Hand.

Sometimes, caseworkers find themselves advising homeless families to make their situations worse — to avoid overtime or drop a shift — to get down to the state’s unreasonable limit. But if they are caught doing that, they may be ruled ineligible to apply for shelter for 90 days. Of course, homelessness makes it more likely a parent will lose their job anyway.

“The only way to access [shelter] is to hit rock bottom, and these families are trying so hard not to hit rock bottom,” said Katie Day, a caseworker at Family Promise. “And you have to be the one to say, ‘Yes, sorry, it has to get worse for you.’”

It shouldn’t have to get worse for Tami Mitchell and her family.

Finding an affordable place to rent is their only hope now. So, on Thursday afternoon, Day and Family Promise volunteer Joyce Mosher visited Mitchell at her hotel to help fix her application for state-subsidized housing. Bedeviled by technology, Mitchell struggles to forward an email. Her first application was rejected because she failed to submit the required documents, but she had to get it right this time. The three women spent hours hacking through the impossibly involved online application, uploading some of those documents from Mitchell’s stuffed backpack.

Seeking housing should not require this kind of expertise and intensive hand-holding, but it absolutely does. Once her housing applications are accepted, all Mitchell can do is wait — perhaps for years — and worry.

“I know people who have been waiting 10 or 15 years already, but as long as I’m on that list, something is going to happen,” she said. “It may not be today or tomorrow or next year. As long as something comes up.”

What becomes of her family in the meantime?


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.