News, Policies, & Trends

New Ideas and Challenges for Ending Homelessness in Massachusetts

By | May 24, 2011

In a previous post, I began to outline several policy initiatives that could represent positive changes in the arena of housing and homelessness in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In addition to the previously discussed bills, other legislation pertinent to poverty in Massachusetts is poised to introduce positive changes during the current legislative session.

One bill, H.2118, introduced by Representative Carlos Henriquez (D, Dorchester), would address situations of homelessness that commonly arise out of discharges from substance use and mental health treatment, as well as from periods of incarceration.

According to Rep. Martin J. Walsh of Dorchester, a co-sponsor of H.2118, “The emergency shelter system has, in practice, served as step-down housing, and state policy should reflect this reality by providing shelter providers with the tools to transition (those who have been discharged) to appropriate housing, by providing treatment facilities and the criminal justice system with the same tools used in successful homelessness diversion pilot programs to prevent homelessness.”

Additionally, H.2118 would remove systemic barriers to asset development and housing, and would study and pilot preference programs for public housing and voucher assistance.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Whip Jack Hart’s (D, Boston) bill, S.595, would prevent homelessness among elderly and disabled persons and families facing no-fault evictions by amending Section 9 of the Massachusetts General Laws.

Legislative Hearing

Several of the legislators present at the May 10, 2011 hearing on homelessness expressed interest in and support for the various initiatives to mitigate homelessness and provide permanent housing developments.

Freshman Representative Jim Lyons of Andover voiced the impact that a recent visit to a crowded shelter in Lawrence had on his desire to make change, and pledged support for streamlining the systems of state supported emergency shelter and permanent housing. Likewise, Rep. Christopher Markey of Dartmouth asserted, “We need to resolve this quickly.

Not in ten years, but in two years.” For his part, Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston focused on the need for “one database, one application” for permanent, affordable housing for the Commonwealth’s low-income residents, calling the idea “my end goal.”

Yet despite the lack of dissenting voices surrounding current housing and homelessness legislation at the May 10th hearing, the general climate in the Massachusetts state government does not necessarily bode well for economically disadvantaged residents and their advocates.

Spending Cuts

Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal for the fiscal year 2012 budget, as contained in House 1 of the current legislative session, includes substantial cuts to the state emergency shelter system in favor of a housing first model.

As reported by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, House 1 recommends modifying the way that homeless services are provided to families, such that in 2012 shelter and services funded by emergency assistance would be limited to families who have lost their housing to fire or other natural disasters or to those whose head of household is 21 years old or younger.

A new Short Term Housing Assistance Program (HomeBase) would then be created to provide a maximum of three years’ worth of housing assistance to families currently eligible to move into shelters. The adequacy of this assistance – $667 per month in rental subsidies – to enable families in Greater Boston to find affordable housing is somewhat questionable.

Ultimately, the Governor’s House 1 proposal represents a shortfall of $23 million if the state were to provide the same level of services in fiscal year 2012 as it did in 2011.

While bolstering funding and support for permanent housing options for homeless and low-income individuals and families—as H.368 and S.607 propose to do—is an unequivocally positive step, many experts have warned against premature dismantling of the emergency shelter system, which is what some fear that Gov. Patrick’s budget cuts would do.

This sentiment is neatly summarized by Ruth Bourquin of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute: “We need to retain access to shelter for families who need a place to stay while they are looking for housing.”

Although everyone may not agree on what the optimal equation for prioritizing and funding housing and homeless services in the future of the Commonwealth, the numbers indisputably demonstrate that solutions must be found. In November 2007, Gov. Patrick signed the Executive Order on Homelessness, unrolling his administration’s five-year strategic plan to end homelessness in Massachusetts. Now midway through 2011, a mere one and one half years remain before the 2013 deadline.

Photo credit: Taariq Maruzook