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Hotels no answer for homeless

Last January, state officials promised to stop placing homeless families in hotel and motel rooms.

The program behind that policy is supposed to be eliminated by June 2014. But the number of Massachusetts families living in hotels and motels is increasing, according to the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the nonprofit Homes for Families, its partner during a recent conference on homelessness.

More than 4,200 Massachusetts families now reside in either state-funded family shelters or in taxpayer-subsidized hotel or motel rooms, a number that “is unprecedented in the state’s 30 years of having a shelter safety net,” said Donna Haig Friedman, director of the school’s Center for Social Policy — and doubles the tally during the administration of Republican Governor Mitt Romney.


Also, for the first time in state history, half those families — about 2,100 — are living in hotels or motels, Friedman said.

The number of families receiving emergency housing assistance is higher than ever, even though eligibility requirements are stricter than ever. Only 40 percent of the families who applied for shelter across the state were determined to be eligible; in Boston, only 28 percent were approved. To verify need, people applying for assistance must now document “having spent a night in a place not meant for human habitation.’’ To prove they have no place to call home, thousands of families stay overnight in emergency rooms or train stations.

Their plight may or may not tug at your heartstrings. But the economics of these emergency solutions most definitely yank at your purse strings.

For the current fiscal year, Massachusetts is allocating about $200 million for shelter subsidies and short-term housing assistance, which includes money for hotel and motel rooms. The state’s long-term housing assistance — the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program — was once funded at $120 million a year; it’s now budgeted to receive $57.5 million.


Relying on hotels and motels for emergency shelter is good news only for their owners and for those who transport needy families across the state. In some cases, homeless Boston families who qualify for state shelter are taxied to shelters in Danvers, Bedford, and Greenfield “at a cost that could pay a month’s rent,” said Friedman. School districts also pay a portion of transportation costs to keep children in their original school setting.

The Massachusetts poverty rate is lower than the national average, but it is increasing, according to a report released this month by the US Census Bureau. The income gap between rich and poor in Massachusetts is one of the highest in the nation, and housing costs are also much higher than the national average. That means more Massachusetts residents need low-cost housing, but the supply is nowhere near the growing demand.

Friedman said that thousands of people remain on waiting lists for rental vouchers. The most desperate end up in emergency shelter situations. That, instead of long-term housing assistance, is where Massachusetts continues to pour taxpayer money.

This is poor public policy in a state that prides itself on cutting-edge thinking. Despite the best of intentions, it contributes to the demonization of poor people, rather than to recognition of the Bay State’s commitment to the less fortunate. Motels are not good places for families to live or raise children. But the idea of homeless families living in taxpayer-subsidized motel rooms stirs resentment about poor people getting something they don’t deserve.


The growing gap between rich and poor and the need for affordable housing were part of the debate during the Boston mayoral race. Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh promises that addressing those concerns will be a priority. But this agenda needs statewide focus and coordination.

Massachusetts should celebrate the surge of commercial and housing development that comes with a rising economic tide. But that tide does not lift all citizens. Indeed, families in record numbers are drowning in the swirling waters. To borrow from an analogy often used by Kip Tiernan — the well-known social activist and advocate for the homeless, who died in 2011 — it’s time for Massachusetts to focus more on what’s happening upstream and come up with a housing policy to address it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.