Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Soaring Rents And Stagnant Incomes Leave Record Number Of Mass. Families Homeless

Soaring Rents And Stagnant Incomes Leave Record Number Of Mass. Families Homeless

Tuesday, December 17

By Bruce Gellerman December 16, 2013

Lynnicia, 22, and her 15-month-old son, Myshon, were forced to seek emergency shelter after their federal rent subsidy expired and their landlord raised the rent to market rate. With no shelter space available, they were placed in a Brighton motel. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — Hundreds of volunteers will fan out across Boston Monday night to conduct the city’s 34th annual homeless census. They’ll be counting how many people are living on the streets and in shelters.

By now, homelessness was supposed to be a thing of the past in Boston and all of Massachusetts. In 2008, a state legislative commission released a five-year plan to eliminate it. But today, homelessness is up and the number of families seeking shelter is at an all-time high.

‘Obligated To Place’

When it comes to dealing with homeless families, Massachusetts is unique. Thirty years ago, the commonwealth become the first “right to shelter” state, guaranteeing every eligible family a roof over their heads.

“We have the most extensive emergency shelter system in the country and we’re the only state where [when] someone qualifies for emergency shelter, we are obligated to place,” explained Aaron Gornstein, Massachusetts’ undersecretary of Housing and Community Development.

The housing office has contracts with permanent shelters around the state to provide emergency assistance for 2,000 families. In normal times, the safety net works, serving homeless parents and their children under 21. But, Gornstein says, these are not normal times.

“We’ve been coming out the Great Recession but there are still many families facing economic hardship,” Gornstein said. “We have a very tight rental market compared to a year ago, so we do see more evictions for non-payment of rent because rents are going up.”

Way up: the average monthly rent in Massachusetts is the sixth highest in the nation. And as rents have soared around the state, incomes have stagnated. Massachusetts has one of the widest wage gaps between rich and poor in the country.

“People don’t choose homelessness, people do not choose poverty,” said Diane Sullivan, policy director at the Boston-based advocacy organization Homes for Families. ”You could be working two jobs. That’s what a lot of people say, ‘Oh, well, if you’re working and you’re still poor, get another job.’ You could never sleep, you could never be there to care for your children and you still wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. That’s the reality.”

Sequestration Hits An Already-Struggling System

“But what’s made it worse,” Gornstein explained, “is the federal budget cuts that occurred as part of sequestration earlier this year.” Gornstein says since spring, the state has lost $20 million in federal funding for subsidized housing. The so-called Section 8 program has been frozen at 20,000 vouchers in Massachusetts. There are 95,000 households on the waiting list.

Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, says the situation is worse than it’s ever been in Massachusetts — with the state’s emergency shelter system now serving 4,100 homeless families, or twice its capacity.

“The numbers in shelters are higher than ever before and shelters are scrambling to add on more capacity to meet the need, and we have more families being turned away because they’re found not to be eligible than ever before,” Hayes said.

Last year, the state instituted new standards making it harder for families to qualify for emergency assistance. Liza Hirsch, an attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, says now more than half the families that apply are denied emergency shelter.

“The effect of tighter standards is that families are in very, very dire circumstances,” Hirsch said. “So they’re scrambling to find family members, friends, acquaintances, people they barely know to stay with and then sometimes have to resort to sleeping in cars in sub-freezing temperature. It’s really a crisis.”

Motels As Emergency Shelter

Gornstein says the state office is doing the best it can.

“We are obligated to place every family that’s eligible. We do that the same day and we do it to make sure that the families and children are safe,” Gornstein explained. “And if we don’t have enough emergency shelter beds in our regular shelter system, we then go to hotels and motels. It is not our preference to do that.”

Across the state, a record number of motel rooms are being pressed into service as emergency family shelters.

“It’s pretty depressing,” Hayes said. “It’s cars whizzing by, it’s the only accessible food being sometimes fast food, if you’re lucky. And it’s one room. Imagine your house with just your bedroom and your bathroom.”

Lynnicia, 22, whose last name we’re not using for privacy reasons, doesn’t have to imagine it. For her and her infant son, homelessness is real. Last summer, she was living in an apartment in Taunton when the federal subsidy ran out and the landlord raised the rent to the market rate. Lynnicia couldn’t afford it on her salary as a child care worker, so she and Myshon, now 15 months old, moved out.

“Well, making part-time income was not enough for me to afford my own apartment so I had to apply for a shelter,” Lynnicia explained.

But there was no emergency shelter spaces left in eastern Massachusetts, so the state sent Lynnicia and her son west to a motel in Greenfield.

“I mean, I was grateful to have a place to stay, but Greenfield wasn’t ideal for me,” Lynnicia said. She had never been to Greenfield before. She looked at a map to realize it was two hours from her old apartment in Taunton – too far from her job in Quincy and her son’s doctors in Boston. Myshon has sickle cell anemia. They got help from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and a week later they got a room at the Days Hotel in Brighton. It’s still a three-hour round-trip ride to her job on public transport, but the room is clean and safe and warm. There are two beds, a crib, a small fridge and a microwave.

“I never thought I’d be in shelter, period. I mean, I’ve always been working and I always felt that I was going to make a way, but nowadays, the apartment we had was affordable and now we don’t have anything that’s affordable,” Lynnicia said. “So, I mean, affordable housing would be great.”

“The problem is that the wait lists are very, very long,” Hirsch said. ”Families basically have to apply at all of the different housing authorities separately and they just have to complete application after application after application and then they sit on waiting lists.”

The average homeless family stay in a motel is seven months. The state pays $82 a day, or about $17,000 per family.

In 2008, Massachusetts spent $1 million for the entire year on motel space. This year, it will spend that and more in a week.

“It’s not just about the money, families go through trauma,” said Diane Sullivan, policy director at Homes for Families. She knows firsthand about the human cost of homelessness. Twelve years ago, her husband lost his job and they and their four children lost their home.

“We were evicted for owing just over $1,000,” Sullivan said. Today, if a family is evicted from subsidized housing for failing to pay rent, it cannot qualify for emergency shelter for three years. But back in 2001, the regulations were different and Sullivan’s family did qualify for a motel room. It was Christmas Eve.

“When I talk about it, it brings up these emotions that I guess I haven’t dealt with. But, this is why I do this work. Because it doesn’t need to be. Families don’t need to be homeless,” Sullivan said. “Some families just need a housing subsidy, some families need more than that, we need to stop this cookie cutter approach that says, ‘Here’s the one solution that is going to work for every single one of you.’”

Preventing Homelessness 

Ultimately, homeless advocates and state officials agree. What’s needed is more permanent affordable housing. Lots of it, Gornstein says.

“It’s better for the families and better for the taxpayers,” he explained. But the up-front costs for permanent, affordable housing are very expensive. There’s another approach, Gornstein says: Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT.

“The most cost-effective measure would be to prevent the homelessness in the first place,” Gornstein explained. And state funding for the RAFT prevention program has gone from $200,000 two years ago to $10 million today.

“This is a flagship program which helped 3,000 families from becoming homeless in the first place. And our average level of assistance that we’re providing per family is about $2,500,” Gornstein said. But the RAFT program to prevent homelessness is too late for the 4,100 families in Massachusetts now living in emergency shelters. Among them, Lynnicia and her infant son, Myshon.

“You know what? I don’t care where it is that I stay, as long as there’s a place to stay, you know? Where I can do what I have to do and not stop working,” Lynnicia said. “Where I can continue to care for him and he can continue to get his health care. Other than that, I mean, I’m working, I’m in school, based on that, I kind of want to continue to make a better life for myself.”

Lynnicia is studying online to become a lawyer. Her computer sits on the desk on her motel room in Brighton. A place she’ll call home for the indefinite future.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mass. scrambling to find housing for its homeless

As numbers hit a record high, state fills shelters, far-off motel rooms

BOSTON GLOBE, By Megan Woolhouse and David Abel, December 02, 2013f Form


Bottom of Form

GREENFIELD — Record numbers of homeless families are overwhelming the state’s emergency shelter system, filling motel rooms at the cost to taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars a year.

An average of nearly 2,100 families a night — an all-time high — were temporarily housed in motel rooms in October, just about equaling the number of families in emergency shelters across the state, according to be the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

The demand for shelter is so great that the state has been temporarily sending homeless families from Boston to motels in Western Massachusetts, although state officials said many have been relocated back again, closer to home.

Aaron Gornstein, the undersecretary for housing, said the surge has followed cuts in state and federal housing subsidies, soaring rents in Greater Boston, and still-high rates of unemployment and underemployment, particularly among lower-income workers.

 “The state as a whole has recovered from the Great Recession faster than most other states, but in many ways we’re still struggling,” Gornstein said. “Federal budget cuts have made the situation worse.”

A recent report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the number of homeless people in shelters and living on the streets in Massachusetts has risen 14 percent since 2010 to nearly 20,000 in January 2013, even as homelessness has declined nationally.

This jump in homelessness is another example of an uneven recovery. Even as stocks soar to new heights and real estate values rebound, many of the state’s poorest residents remain without jobs and homes four years after the last recession. The problems have been compounded by the dramatic federal spending cuts, known as sequestration, which have cut housing and food subsidies.

“There’s no question, this is a continuing legacy of the Great Recession,” said Michael Goodman, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “There’s more we can do to help, but it’s not likely, given where federal policy is. That suggests it’s going to be a very long winter for many.”

In the Western Massachusetts community of Greenfield, taxicabs pull up to the Quality Inn, but instead of tourists or business travelers with wheeled luggage, homeless families toting belongings in trash bags emerge.

Gretchen Vazquez is one of them. She moved into a room in the Quality Inn in October with her two daughters, 1- and 9-years-old, when the state subsidy for her Roxbury apartment ran out after the Legislature stopped funding a program called HomeBASE. The program was created to provide an alternative to emergency shelters.

The cramped motel, Vazquez lamented, is far from her evangelical church and her daughter’s school in West Roxbury. After missing about two weeks of school, her daughter enrolled in the public school system here.

“I’m stuck,” said Vazquez. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Massachusetts has one of the most extensive shelter systems in the country. Unlike most states, it offers emergency housing to anyone who qualifies. Many end up in shelters or living in homes that board families in rooms, known as congregate housing.

Motels are one of the state’s most expensive options at $82 a night, almost as much as congregate housing’s $100 a night cost. In the past five years, state spending on motels has exploded to more than $46 million from about $1 million in 2008, according to state records

The average motel stay, state housing officials said, is about seven months, although some families live in motels for a year waiting for affordable housing.

Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, a Boston advocacy group, said it is not surprising that low-income workers with fewer skills cannot make ends meet since even college graduates are struggling to find work.

“The economy is not working,” Hayes said. “How do we expect people from the lowest income tier to make it if people who have had opportunities can’t?”

The recent jump in homeless people signals that people have run out of alternatives, said Randy Albelda, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Many families were able to stay off the streets by living off savings, doubling up with family members, or sleeping on friends’ couches, Albelda said. But eventually their money or relatives’ good will “just runs out.”

“Families close to the edge have not been able to pull back from the edge in this recovery,” Albelda said. “That’s in part because the recovery has not affected the bottom 30 to 40 percent of people.”

Rather than warehousing families in motel rooms, said Jim Greene, director of the Emergency Shelter Commission of Boston, the state needs more long-term rental assistance programs that target families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

“That’s how you bring the numbers down, with the right social services,” he said. “Short-term programs don’t get people out of homelessness.”

Felicita Diaz’s family — her mother, 20-year-old sister, and 11-year-old brother — moved to an EconoLodge in Northborough for three weeks this fall after the housing subsidy for their Dorchester apartment ended.

Diaz, 18, a freshman at UMass Boston, said she took the commuter rail to get to her first day of college and then stayed with friends so she could attend classes and keep her job in the admissions office. But her 11-year-old brother missed about three weeks of school because the family could not afford the daily $9 fare to and from Boston on the commuter rail. Her mother had to quit her English as a Second Language classes because of the distance.

The family has temporarily moved to an apartment in Chelsea, continuing to hunt for affordable housing. Diaz’s brother is back in school, but her mother will have to wait until spring to enroll again in English classes.

“It’s been really hard,” Diaz said.


Where Is the Love? - Nicholas Kristof, NYT, 27 November 2013

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, Published: November 27, 2013

When I’ve written recently about food stamp recipients, the uninsured and prison inmates, I’ve had plenty of pushback from readers.

A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”

A reader in Washington bluntly suggested taking children from parents and putting them in orphanages.

Jim asked: “Why should I have to subsidize someone else’s child? How about personal responsibility? If you procreate, you provide.”

After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.

“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?”

Such scorn seems widespread, based on the comments I get on my blog and Facebook page — as well as on polling and on government policy. At root, these attitudes reflect a profound lack of empathy.

A Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske, has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion.

So, on Thanksgiving, maybe we need a conversation about empathy for fellow humans in distress.

Let’s acknowledge one point made by these modern social Darwinists: It’s true that some people in poverty do suffer in part because of irresponsible behavior, from abuse of narcotics to criminality to laziness at school or jobs. But remember also that many of today’s poor are small children who have done nothing wrong.

Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, for example. Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?

Successful people tend to see in themselves a simple narrative: You study hard, work long hours, obey the law and create your own good fortune. Well, yes. That often works fine in middle-class families.

But if you’re conceived by a teenage mom who drinks during pregnancy so that you’re born with fetal alcohol effects, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you from before birth. You’ll perhaps never get traction.

Likewise, if you’re born in a high-poverty neighborhood to a stressed-out single mom who doesn’t read to you and slaps you more than hugs you, you’ll face a huge handicap. One University of Minnesota study found that the kind of parenting a child receives in the first 3.5 years is a better predictor of high school graduation than I.Q.

All this helps explain why one of the strongest determinants of ending up poor is being born poor. As Warren Buffett puts it, our life outcomes often depend on the “ovarian lottery.” Sure, some people transcend their circumstances, but it’s callous for those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to hit home runs.

John Rawls, the brilliant 20th-century philosopher, argued for a society that seems fair if we consider it from behind a “veil of ignorance” — meaning we don’t know whether we’ll be born to an investment banker or a teenage mom, in a leafy suburb or a gang-ridden inner city, healthy or disabled, smart or struggling, privileged or disadvantaged. That’s a shrewd analytical tool — and who among us would argue for food stamp cuts if we thought we might be among the hungry children?

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics.

For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing.

Low-income Americans, who actually encounter the needy in daily life, understand this complexity and respond with empathy. Researchers say that’s why the poorest 20 percent of Americans donate more to charity, as a fraction of their incomes, than the richest 20 percent. Meet those who need help, especially children, and you become less judgmental and more compassionate.

And compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.