When he was a candidate on the campaign trail, now-Governor Charlie Baker’s first big policy proposal was to “work to eliminate” the policy of putting homeless families in hotels and motels at state expense when shelters are full. He called it an ambitious goal, and it was.
Baker marked a year in office at noon Friday. He has sharply reduced the number of families sheltered in hotels and motels from 1,500 when he took office to 932 as of Thursday night. The governor has pledged to “get that number down to zero before the end of our four years.”
Baker tried twice to drastically reduce eligibility for homeless families to access state-paid temporary lodging, which advocates cautioned would leave some of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable on the streets. The administration emphasized that its eligibility changes were paired with additional money for services to help families before they were in such dire housing straits. But the Legislature rebuffed Baker’s efforts to narrow eligibility, saying it would not be in the best interest of the homeless.
Despite the progress Baker has made on hotels and motels, there are still thousands of homeless families in Massachusetts, including 3,201 families in shelters at state expense as of Thursday. What makes the problem so difficult to solve, advocates say, is the large number of people working but not earning enough to pay for rent near where they work because there is so little affordable housing. They point out that a person working 50 hours a week at state minimum wage of $10 per hour for 52 weeks, would make only $26,000 a year, and that the average rent for a Boston apartment is more than $24,000 per year.
“The challenge remains that we still have a humongous housing crisis, a shortage of affordable housing,” said Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, a nonprofit that aims to end homelessness in the Bay State. She said Baker and the state are making progress through measures such as a program that allots money to help pay for families to stay in their home or at a friend’s or relative’s home. But those efforts won’t address the underlying issue of far too few affordable apartments and income inequality.
Massachusetts is the country’s only right-to-shelter state. When eligible families — those whose incomes are close to or below the federal poverty level and are deemed to be state residents — can show they are homeless because of domestic violence, natural disaster, no-faulteviction, or health and safety risks, Massachusetts is mandated to provide shelter.
The state contracts about 3,400 shelter beds. When those are full, the state puts homeless families in hotels and motels at an average cost estimated last year to be $106 per night.
Hotels and motels are often a poor option for housing families because they separate them from the social support of relatives and friends, familiar schools, a clean place for children to play, easy access to public transportation, and kitchen equipment such as a refrigerator and stove. But, advocates say, a motel on Route 1 is often better than the alternative.
Lizzy Guyton, a spokeswoman for Baker, said in a statement the governor considers “homelessness a human tragedy and is committed to eliminating the disruptive policy of placing homeless families in motel rooms during his first term.”
She said that over the past year the administration “has made progress and taken several steps to bring down the number of families in hotels and motels, including increased resources for at-risk families, more permanent homes, and more affordable housing units in production.”Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos and
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