Governor Charlie Baker, who made tackling homelessness a pillar of his campaign, proposed a $20 million fund Monday to keep low-income families off the streets.
The fund, which aims to provide counselors and a range of services to families before they land in an overcrowded shelter system, is part of what Baker described as a preventative approach to a searing problem.
“At a point in time when family homelessness has actually been falling nationally, it’s been increasing in Massachusetts,” Baker said, in a press briefing, calling it “a human tragedy that clearly must be rethought and reconsidered.”
Massachusetts ranks third in the nation behind New York and California in the number of people in homeless families, according to a recent report from the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Baker will include the “End Family Homelessness Reserve Fund” in his broader state budget proposal, set to be released Wednesday. And that proposal is expected to be an austere one, with a leading fiscal watchdog group projecting a $1.5 billion shortfall for the fiscal year that begins in July.
The proposed homelessness reserve does not represent a hike in funding; the governor is hoping that by keeping families housed, he can save on shelters and a far-flung network of motels the state has tapped to accommodate the overflow.
And while advocates welcomed Baker’s focus on prevention, they said they would be watching closely to see if he pitches substantial housing, job training, and child care supports in his broader budget.
“If people are diverted from shelter, that’s wonderful,” said Lisa Hacker, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that works to connect the homeless and other vulnerable populations to affordable housing. “But the question is: Where are they being diverted to?”
An administration spokesman said Baker would propose a funding increase in one key program that provides housing subsidies for low-income families. But he declined to discuss other parts of the budget.
Baker’s proposals will become law only with the Legislature’s approval. Spokesmen for House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg said they were still reviewing Baker’s homelessness prevention proposals Monday and had no comment.
The contest for resources for the homeless can pit families against individuals. And that dynamic surfaced Monday.
Karen LaFrazia, executive director of St. Francis House in Boston and a member of the Coalition for Homeless Individuals, welcomed Baker’s efforts to prevent family homelessness. But in a statement, she said she hoped the administration “will show the same commitment to homeless individuals across the Commonwealth.”
The governor did make one gesture in that direction Monday, proposing $2 million to revive a program aimed at supporting mentally ill homeless individuals. But his focus was on families.
Baker was a top aide to Governor William F. Weld in the 1990s. And that administration, at one point, shrunk the population of homeless families living in motels to zero.
The number has steadily climbed, though, amid an affordable housing crunch. By December’s end, 1,557 families were in motels. The Baker administration has trimmed that to 1,419, in part by enforcing eligibility requirements.
Philip Mangano, a nationally known advocate who is president of the American Roundtable to Abolish Homelessness in Boston, praised the push to get families out of motels and into home communities. “It’s common sense for the state budget, common sense for our families’ well-being, and far more compassionate than isolating them in distant and expensive welfare motels,” he said.