When Ivelisse Florentino found herself homeless, she was granted emergency housing assistance in Haverhill, even though her kids attend public schools in Boston and she doesn’t have a car. Then she joined a class action lawsuit filed last year against the Commonwealth to challenge Governor Charlie Baker’s drive to end the practice of placing homeless families in taxpayer-funded motel rooms.
A court ruling on the case earlier this month made it clear that the state’s policy of no motel placements for emergency housing discriminated against families like Florentino’s. Her son has a knee ailment, and a judge ordered the state to place Florentino closer to Boston. She and her kids now live at a motel in Waltham.
While the Baker administration has made admirable progress in reducing the number of homeless families placed in motels, the court is right. In exceptional circumstances, placing the disabled and others with special circumstances into motel rooms should be approved, as long as it doesn’t revert to common practice.
Massachusetts stands as the only state in the nation to give shelter to all qualifying homeless families, but for years lacked adequate shelter space and housed some families in motels instead. In 2015, when Baker took office, there were 1,500 families in motels.
Generally, motel rooms are costlier than a shelter bed. Moreover, the Baker administration argues, shelters are preferable because they’re able to offer an array of social services. Motel rooms may also be in isolated locations, far from public transit and ill-equipped for children. As of last week, there were only 45 families living in motels, while more than 3,000 are housed in shelters across the state
But Suffolk Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Wilkins ruled that federal law guarantees individuals with disabilities certain modified program benefits — e.g., a motel placement in a suitable location when shelter beds are not available — to accommodate their needs.
Ruth A. Bourquin, the lead lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, noted that the court’s ruling also made it clear that the Legislature wanted the state to keep people close to their home communities — a requirement she says the Baker administration has been ignoring “to the detriment of parents getting to jobs, kids getting to school, and family members getting to medical providers.”
If the state had enough shelter space — and had it in the right places —