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Costs at heart of emergency shelter eligibility debate

Homeless people waited to be admitted to the Boston Night Center last January.John Blanding/Globe Staff/File

Advocates call it one of the state’s cruelest requirements. Before some poor homeless families can qualify for taxpayer-funded shelter and motel rooms, they must spend a night in a place “unfit for human habitation” — such as an emergency room, park bench, or campground — to be legally homeless in the eyes of the state.

To change that, the state Senate quietly passed a measure last month dropping the mandate. Supporters say the move would cost the state little in added caseload — just a few hundred thousand dollars a year — and would spare parents and children from having to endure a night of hardship to satisfy a bureaucratic checklist.


But officials in the administration of Governor Charlie Baker say the change would cost the state an added $41 million annually and mean hundreds more families per month would enter the system, already seen as the nation’s most generous.

The emotional debate over whether to expand eligibility is playing out behind closed doors at the State House. Negotiators for the Senate, which backs the change, and the House, which doesn’t, are tangling over the final wording of Massachusetts’ $39.5 billion spending plan.

In a twist, not all advocates for the homeless support dropping the controversial hardship requirement. Some say the adjustment would needlessly expand Massachusetts’ emergency shelter program, leading to more and more families being placed in last-resort hotels and motels at taxpayer expense.

“This change may be well intentioned, but what we’ve learned, of course, is that good intentions often lead to unintended consequences for the people to whom we are extending our largesse,” said Philip Mangano, a longtime advocate for the homeless who worked for the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “So, some tell us, let’s put moms and kids in motels for just a day or two. But the reality is they’re there for months and months, isolating them from social capital including faith communities, their families, and often their support systems.”


Mangano continued: “In our rush to be do-gooders, we do long-term bad for these moms and children.”

But at its core, this is a debate more about money than morals.

The average state cost to put a family in emergency shelter is $117 per night. And proponents say expanding eligibility would, at most, mean a few hundred more families spend a single additional night or weekend on the taxpayers’ dime, for a total cost of perhaps $300,000.

But, according to the Baker administration estimate, the policy proposal would mean 200 additional families would enter emergency housing per month that otherwise would not have been eligible for a state-funded room, costing taxpayers an additional $41 million annually. Administration officials said the estimate is based on their expectation of increased demand, but didn’t provide details.

Which of the vastly different projections is closer to reality is hard to know, experts say, because it depends on how many families seek the state’s help.

The House’s coolness to the proposal — as well as the Baker administration’s — comes as lawmakers are grappling with a budget deficit projected to be significant.

In the fiscal year that ends on June 30, the state is projected to spend almost $200 million on housing for homeless families, and tens of millions of dollars more on a program that provides up to $8,000 to help pay for rent, utilities, and other expenses so families can stay in their homes, or defray the costs of staying with a friend or relative.


A homeless shelter in downtown Boston. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2014/Globe Staff

With the state facing what could be a $750 million shortfall in the new fiscal year, expanding the emergency housing program could be a big reach.

Kelly Turley of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless said the change would have a profound impact on hundreds of families.

From last July through April, she said citing state data, more than 500 families stayed in a place unfit for human habitation for at least one night before entering taxpayer-funded shelter.

“This change would benefit children and families who are already experiencing homelessness — often seeking help when they can no longer double up with another family in untenable situations. They’re just not homeless enough by the administration’s standards to get help,” Turley said.

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 — can show they are homeless because of domestic violence, natural disaster, no-fault eviction, or health and safety risks, the state is mandated to provide housing. That can take the form of a room in a shelter or, if there aren’t any left, a hotel or motel.

On Friday night, there were 485 families in taxpayer-funded hotels and motels, and 3,326 in taxpayer-funded shelters.

Baker, who took office in January 2015, has pledged to end the practice of sending families to hotels and motels by the end of his first term. And the number of families in such accommodations has dropped significantly since then, from 1,500 to less than 500.


Advocates, lawmakers, and the governor broadly agree that hotels and motels are often a terribly inadequate option for housing families. That type of lodging frequently separates families 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.

So some advocates are of two minds about further expanding eligibility, which would almost certainly lead to the number of mothers, fathers, and kids in motels rising, without solving the underlying problem of too few affordable apartments for people who are just barely scraping by financially.

“Expanding eligibility doesn’t solve the larger crisis,” said Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, a nonprofit.

“The last thing that we want is for motel numbers to go up,” she said, “but we don’t want families to be sleeping in ERs or on the street either.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos. Click here to subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics.