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Program moves homeless families out of motels

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

A report released this month by the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership (MBHP), a Boston-based regional housing assistance organization, highlights the fragility of housing stability for low-income families in Massachusetts and calls for broader and longer-term support for homeless families re-entering the housing market.

The report, titled “Rapid Re-housing of Motel-Sheltered Families: MBHP’s Preliminary Assessment,” describes a Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP) project earlier this year that assessed the needs of families temporarily housed in Greater Boston motels and provided rent subsidies and other assistance to some of them. The project was funded by federal stimulus dollars through the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

Massachusetts has one of the highest housing costs in the nation, and 72 percent of low-income families here spend more than 30 percent of their income toward housing, the report notes. A reduction in income or unexpected expenses can quickly push such families toward homelessness.

As unemployment ballooned during the recent recession, a rising number of Massachusetts families sought refuge in the state’s emergency shelter system. From June 2008 to June 2009 the number of families in the shelter system rose to 3,000, a 35 percent jump that exceeded capacity and caused the state to turn to motels for emergency shelter, an expensive temporary fix.

The cost of motel shelter, while lower than staffed emergency shelter services, is nearly double the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment, according to the report. But in late 2009 more than 1,000 families were being housed in motels each night.

The HPRP project was conducted by MBHP in partnership with Heading Home, a Cambridge-based shelter and housing services provider. The two agencies assessed the situations and needs of 643 motel-sheltered families in the Boston area. They identified families that could be quickly re-housed, helped them secure appropriate housing and monitored their success or failure in gaining economic stability.

On the positive side, 201 families were placed in housing in the first six months of this year. They are receiving up to one year of rental subsidy — about $12,000 — along with other support such as career and financial counseling and assistance in arranging childcare. For some, the HPRP assistance may be enough to help them move on with their lives after a temporary setback, with permanent shelter as a stabilizing factor.

After she escaped an abusive relationship, Linda Robinson of Dorchester was sheltered in a Brighton motel with her 13- and 14-year-old sons for two months. Through the HPRP program, she moved into an apartment in Cambridge last January.

Living in a motel was difficult for her sons, she said. They were able to take a bus from Brighton back to Dorchester to attend school, but after school there was no place to go. And with only a mini-fridge and a microwave, it was hard to eat right.

“I don’t think they’ll eat another TV dinner as long as they live,” she said.

Besides providing a rent subsidy, MBHP connected Robinson with the Career Collaborative in Boston. She participated in a monthlong program there to update her resume and hone her interviewing skills. After that, going to a job fair paid off. She landed a position as a human services assistant working with women in a shelter.

“I dressed up and interviewed on the spot, and they called me,” she said. “I pushed for it, I persevered, and I got the job.”

With her new job, Robinson said she is confident she’ll be able to continue paying the $1,200 monthly rent when her HPRP subsidy runs out in January. Her boys now go to a Cambridge school and no longer have to be up at 5 a.m. to get to their old school.

But Robinson’s success may be the exception.

Many families in the assessment were not eligible for the HPRP assistance. Families that had no wage income, no rental history (or a history of eviction), a household member with a criminal record, or that lacked permanent legal residency were not considered for this program.

Perhaps worse, many of the families that were placed in apartments have little chance of continuing to support themselves and pay their rent once the yearlong HPRP assistance ends. The reason is clear: “The median income of those participating in the study is $9,144 annually,” says the report, “only 17 percent of the income needed to support a fair-market, two-bedroom apartment [at a rent of $1,357].”

Heading Home Executive Director Tom Lorello expressed disappointment at the report’s finding that up to 90 percent of the families would have trouble keeping afloat after the yearlong rent subsidy.

“I don’t think anyone was shocked. I do think the high percentage was disappointing, though,” he said. “But it wasn’t surprising because the economy is so bad.”

Especially dismaying was that even with careful assessment, the families chosen aren’t yet gaining a foothold.

“A lot of folks placed with these funds were picked because they had a pretty good work history,” Lorello said. “So we thought they’d be able to get on their feet.”

The outlook is decidedly bleak. The report makes some recommendations for improving the success of re-housing programs, but it seems the real problems lie in the prohibitive cost of housing and the steep climb families face in reaching the necessary income to pay their own way.

“Our report and our experience indicate that the majority of the families need assistance for more than one year,” MBHP Executive Director Chris Norris said in a statement released with the report. He emphasized that while the idea is to provide a “bridge” to permanent housing, the wait for affordable housing can be up to eight years — so it’s a long bridge indeed. “It’s time that we stopped using temporary measures to address long-term difficulties,” he said.