By Colleen Quinn
STATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
---- — BOSTON -- For the past two years, Daysi Avalos was happy she and her five children had a home to live in, so it was a shock when the rental assistance she received from the state ran out last month.
She and her children - who range in age from 8 to 18 - were forced to leave their Dorchester apartment immediately and move into a motel shelter in Leominster, the closest one available, she was told.
Avalos is among the 5,400 families enrolled in the state’s HomeBASE rental assistance program that are starting to roll off the two-year program. The assistance is scheduled to end for all recipients by June 30, 2014, according to a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development.
“I was just able to get some of the clothes for my kids. They told me if I didn’t do exactly as the letter said I would lose out on everything. I had to leave all my dishes and everything behind,” Avalos told the News Service through a Spanish-speaking interpreter.
Lawmakers and homelessness advocates are worried there could be many more families like Avalos in the coming months as the HomeBASE program comes to an end.
The number of homeless families in Massachusetts seeking shelter in hotels and motels surged over the summer, jumping from 1,230 in April to 1,710 in August. Last week, the number hit an all-time high of 2,038, according to DHCD.
State housing officials estimate approximately 20 percent of the people who come off the program will wind up back in shelters. Advocates think the number could be higher.
So far, the numbers have come in lower, according to Matthew Sheaff, a spokesman for DHCD. Of the families that transitioned off assistance in September, 91 percent moved into permanent affordable housing. Others took a lump sum, up to $4,000, that helped them move to a more affordable place.
Avalos, 43, lost her job as a cleaning woman at a Boston hospital when she moved. But the hardest part about being homeless again, she said, is the effect on her children. They left their school and friends behind.
Her youngest child is acting out and doesn’t want to eat, and the others are sad, she said. After two years in a home of their own, the move back to a motel is tough, Avalos said.
“I am happy there is a place for us, people like us who ended up without a home,” she says about the shelter. “But it is very disheartening.”
During a Boston Foundation forum on housing last week, Housing and Economic Development Undersecretary Aaron Gornstein cited a “huge increase in homelessness in Massachusetts among families.” He said the Patrick administration was deploying every resource to make a dent in the problem.
So far, applications for emergency shelter in October are down from previous months, according to DHCD.
“We know that these environments are not ideal places for children and families and we are working with every family to help them find a permanent home in their communities,” Gornstein said in a statement to the News Service. “We remain engaged in a comprehensive strategy to get these families back on their feet. Everyone, including all levels of government, charitable organizations, non-profits, and the private sector, has a role to play in this process and it’s going to take all of us working together to solve this problem.”
Homeless advocates fear families who qualified for the rental assistance aspect of the HomeBASE program will be searching for alternative housing over the next couple of months, and reverberations will be felt for months as many of the families who try to hang on without help eventually wind up back in shelters.
On Wednesday, House lawmakers passed a spending bill that dedicated $13 million in additional funds to pay for emergency shelter, about $7 million less than Gov. Deval Patrick requested in supplemental funding. During debate, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said seeing the number of homeless families go up was discouraging, considering how much money the state invested to fight homelessness during the past two years.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo called the additional funding approved by the House and Senate this week “a stop gap measure” that will require either additional financial resources down the line, or a more comprehensive approach to keeping families out of motels.
While the Department of Housing and Community Development spent roughly $46.8 million on emergency hotel and motel shelters in fiscal 2013, the funding approved by the Legislature this week brings the total state commitment for fiscal 2014 to just over $19 million. With more than 2,000 families living in hotels and motels at an average cost to the state of $82 a day, DHCD is spending more than $1.1 million a week on shelter.
DeLeo, who blamed the economy for the struggles of families who have had difficulty transitioning out of shelter living, suggested that House leaders may propose a more comprehensive solution when it releases its version of the Senate welfare reform bill in the coming weeks.
According to advocates from the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the two-year program was too short a timeframe for families to increase their income enough to afford permanent housing on their own. HomeBASE was initially designed as a three year program, but was cut to two years in the FY’13 budget.
Rental prices remain untouchable for many lower-income people, who have lagged behind in the economic recovery, according to Kelly Turley, director of legislative affairs for the coalition.
A lack of affordable housing means fewer families are able to leave shelters while at the same time more families are forced to move back in, Turley said.
The problem will get worse before it gets better, according to homeless advocates.
While the state stepped in to help families afford their rents, the larger issues that led to homelessness still exist, like lack of job training and affordable housing, advocates said.
“The recovery hasn’t reached the lowest income families,” Turley said.
In addition, two years proved an unrealistic timeframe for many families who put their names on waiting lists for affordable housing units. It wasn’t long enough for them to make it to the top of the list, Turley said.
Ana Liriano, a single mother from Mattapan, will lose her rental assistance later this month. She is still on a waiting list for Section 8 affordable housing.
For Liriano, the desperation she felt living in a homeless shelter struck her hard on Mother’s Day two years ago. A single mother with a toddler, Liriano remembers feeling trapped, unable to leave the shelter in Woburn because she did not have transportation. “I had to stay in the room,” she said.
A few months later, she moved into an apartment in Mattapan with help from the HomeBASE program.
Now that her assistance is running out, she plans to do everything she can to avoid going back to a shelter. “That is the worst place anybody can be,” she said.
She credits the program with giving her a place to live for two years. Without the assistance, she said she would have been in a shelter.
“I don’t know what I would have done without it. It was a relief,” Liriano said.
Advocates do not consider the program a failure because thousands of families had stable housing for two years, but they hope it convinces state officials that short-term housing subsidies will not solve the problem for the long-term, Turley said.
Eric Hirsch, a sociology professor at Providence College and researcher on homelessness, said the Patrick administration’s “housing-first” approach to homelessness was doomed because of the nature of the housing market in the state.
“They never really implemented a housing-first program because they don’t have enough housing,” Hirsch said Wednesday.
Hirsch testified to lawmakers last October, predicting short-term subsidies would eventually lead people back to shelters.
“The assumption they were making is if you provide transitional assistance…that somehow people will find their way into permanent housing. I think the deficit of affordable housing is so great for lower income families that the transitional approach won’t work.”
Fair market rents for a two-bedroom apartment in the Greater Boston area average $1,444 a month and a three bedroom is $1,798, according to data collected by HUD.
Other states face similar dilemmas, Hirsch said, adding “I think the recession has overwhelmed just about everybody in terms of how to deal with these problems.”
Hirsch believes the only solution is permanent subsidies, either rent or affordable housing units, which he argues are less expensive over the long-haul. Two-year subsidies or lump sums will not work, he said. “Those are going to send families back into the shelter system,” Hirsch said.
Lawmakers who expressed concern months ago that there was not enough funding for the HomeBASE program said they are not surprised by the choices some families are being forced to make now.
“I don’t think what is happening now is unexpected, at least by some of us,” said Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat.
Donnelly was one of the lawmakers who predicted there would be a deluge of people in need of shelter again once the HomeBASE program ended. “Obviously, I knew it was going to happen,” he said, adding it is the reason he and other lawmakers pushed to increase funding for emergency shelter in the state budget this year.
When House and Senate lawmakers debated the annual budget this year, homelessness - and the question of what to do with the thousands of families living in motels and hotels across the state - took center stage for lengthy debates in both branches.
“As much as we don’t want people in motels and hotels, it looked like it was going to be unavoidable,” Donnelly said. “When we did the budget, it looked like HomeBASE was going to be running out. Where were people going to go?”
The Legislature funded programs in the fiscal year 2014 budget to prevent families from becoming homeless. set aside money to aid previously homeless families get started in new homes, and increased funding for rental voucher programs. Over the past year, state housing officials also worked to rehab more than 200 affordable housing units.
“None of these resources are really deep enough to address the current need,” Turley said.