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JOANNA WEISS

Mass. motel plan strings homeless along

(shutterstock/h. hopp-bruce/globe staff)

I first met Kesdy Baille when she was emceeing a forum on homelessness, in an elementary school cafeteria in Brockton. She carried herself like a politician, fierce and confident, even as she told a story no one wants to tell: about living in a motel room with two kids, filthy carpets, and no way to cook; applying for lotteries for waiting lists for apartments that hadn’t materialized.

“We do have a place to stay, and we’re thankful for it,” Baille said. “But at the same time, there’s so much more that can be done. There has to be a better way to do this.”

This is not news to Governor Charlie Baker, who campaigned on the goal of ending the use of motels as spillover shelters — and ending family homelessness for good. Still, when students from Stonehill College started to organize homeless families, helping them speak out, Baille joined enthusiastically. She’s heard promises from politicians before. Deval Patrick pledged to stop using motels as shelters too. Yet today, some 160 families are living in motels in Brockton alone.

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“It becomes a mind game,” Baille told me. “Last year, they said, ‘We’re gonna get everybody out of the shelter.’ It didn’t happen. And this year, they’re saying the same thing. Stop playing with people’s feelings.”

Baker, in fairness, is doing more than making promises. This spring, he announced plans to seek $20 million for an “End Family Homelessness Reserve Fund,” plus more money for case management — to work with the Department of Health and Human Services on early intervention — and for a program called HomeBASE, which provides families with seed money to get into apartments. In a bid to improve conditions in motels, the Department of Housing and Economic Development is ending its contract with the company that oversaw motel contracts and is hiring outside inspectors to oversee compliance.

And Baker has hired good people — such as Chrystal Kornegay, a respected Roxbury housing advocate who now heads the Department of Housing and Community Development, and somehow manages to be both a pragmatist and an optimist. “We don’t have a lot of money, and we’ve got these really big problems,” she told me. “I think that’s a place where creativity happens.”

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Still, Kornegay understands what longtime housing advocates will tell you: that without some fundamental economic shifts, even the smartest public management will only go so far. To live in Brockton, in market-rate housing — to pay for health care, child care, utilities — a single mother with two kids would have to make nearly $30 per hour, or $62,000 per year. Someone working a minimum wage job, or even two, doesn’t stand a chance.

Which gets us back to Baille, whose story echoes that of many people in the system. She fled an emotionally abusive relationship and moved, with two kids, to Massachusetts. Her mother lived here but was staying with someone who wouldn’t take three more people. So Baille wound up in the state’s “Emergency Assistance” program, which sent her to a Brockton motel. (Massachusetts is the only state that legally guarantees shelter for families with children. There are currently 3,200 families in shelters statewide, 1,278 of them in motels.)

For two years, Baille has worked to dig out of her “temporary” situation. She studied to be a certified nurse’s aide, but the jobs available were on weekends, when she had to watch her kids. She worked as a home health aide, earning $11 an hour. Then she got an ankle injury, and — like a politician might — lobbied her physical therapist so doggedly for a job that she wound up behind the receptionist desk. Now she works regular hours and is starting to save.

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But she’s wary of programs like HomeBASE. She’s heard too many stories about families that use the state money — $6,000 per family, per year, which Baker wants to raise to $8,000— but backslide into shelters when they can’t keep up with the rent. And as she applies for subsidized housing, she bangs into another structural problem: Many Massachusetts communities work as hard as they can to block affordable housing. The supply simply isn’t there.

Kornegay has ideas about this. She launched a program aimed at developers who apply for state subsidies: It gives preference to projects that set aside 10 percent of their units to homeless families, or families at risk of being homeless. It’s a good idea, the kind that could lead to incremental change. That might be the best, in the short term, that a government agency can do.

Baille, understandably, wants more change, sooner. Charlie Baker surely does too. I believe in giving good-willed politicians the benefit of the doubt, and time to work out their plans. I also believe in holding them to their word. If Baille and Baker could meet, they’d probably agree on that.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

Related:

Carlo Rotella: Homeless author’s improbable triumph

Renée Loth: A new strategy on shelter

2013 | Joan Vennochi: Hotels no answer for homeless

2013 | Editorial: Motels are a poor solution to homelessness in Mass.

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