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2013 Law & Public Policy, Commentaries

Massachusetts must restore the safety net to protect homeless families

Zakim_smBy Deena ZakimDownload as PDF.  The State of Massachusetts recently finalized changes tightening eligibility for Emergency Assistance (EA). The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is shifting its focus towards providing permanent housing for homeless families, rather than emergency shelter. The department’s changes are well intentioned but hurt families in need. They must be fixed to protect families before they hit the streets.

DHCD has traditionally provided homeless families with emergency shelter.  However, DHCD now aims to reduce reliance on shelters and transform into a Housing First system. Housing First is a relatively new strategy for confronting homelessness that works to move homeless people into permanent housing as quickly as possible. It operates on the premise that when people have a home, they have the stability necessary to address other issues. DHCD wants to reduce expenditures in the shelter program and move these funds to housing.

As a result, DHCD has tried to limit shelter eligibility to what they consider real emergencies. In the summer of 2012, it announced changes to its regulations that narrowed EA eligibility standards, drastically weakening the state’s safety net for a vulnerable population. The changes created four eligibility categories including families who are: victims of fire, flood, and natural disaster; fleeing domestic violence; facing a no-fault eviction; and currently in housing that exposes children to substantial health and safety risks.

Advocates for the homeless argue that the new categories are too narrowly defined and exclude families at imminent risk of homelessness. Many families are being forced to sleep in unsafe places like cars or parks in order to qualify for the fourth category of eligibility. There are many stories of desperation and fear.

The advocates’ primary policy goal now is to expand category four to include families who are “imminently at risk” of staying in a place not meant for human habitation. As Georgia Katsoulomitis, Executive Director of Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said “One child sleeping in a car is one too many.” The advocates aim to ensure families are not left out in the street. Advocates support DHCD’s shift towards Housing First but are fighting to maintain the safety net.

DHCD says barriers to including families at imminent risk of homelessness are two-fold. It would be difficult to define “imminent risk of homelessness” and without a comprehensive yet exclusive definition, the implementation of the regulation would be infeasible. DHCD also believes that many families claiming to be imminently at risk of sleeping on the street really have another safe place to go. The department questions whether the conditions are as bad as the advocates suggest.

Still, DHCD has responded to the advocates’ push for protecting families at imminent risk by making minor changes to its new policy. One is to provide families a “health and safety” referral if they are “doubled-up” — that is, staying in a home as guests — and they have children under six months or a family member with a documented disability or medical condition, and they have documentation from the host that they can no longer stay.

This referral is also extended to families where the host has received written notice of impending eviction due to the EA applicant family’s presence. This forces hosts to risk their own tenancies. Advocates are also reporting that even when families are referred, they are often not found eligible. This raises the question of whether these changes have any real effect.

More needs to be done.  DHCD is meant to provide emergency shelter for all families in need, not only families with specific conditions. If DHCD has determined that documentation of impending displacement is an adequate test of “imminent risk” of homelessness for doubled-up families including members with disabilities or infants, they should apply that test to all other doubled-up families as well. They should not force other families to subject the host to risk of eviction and becoming homeless themselves.

Advocates and several state legislators have also called for a transitional period to allow for the shift towards Housing First. They argue that the state needs to make this shift incrementally, slowly reducing reliance on shelters. The state does not have an adequate affordable housing stock yet so families being denied shelter are not receiving affordable housing instead.

The incremental approach makes sense.  The only way to end homelessness is with housing but this cannot be done abruptly. In the long run, there will always be a need for emergency shelter, so we must ensure that it remains effective as the state shifts towards its Housing First policy.

The actors need to collaborate to preserve the safety net for homeless families. Granted, the issue is complicated and times are tough, but swiftly dismantling the shelter system, without replacement housing, is not the right approach.

Deena Zakim is a second year student at Suffolk University Law School with an interest in public interest law, focusing on Housing and Homelessness. She received her B.A in Sociology and her M.A. in Community Development and Planning from Clark University in 2008 and 2009 respectively. She interned at Greater Boston Legal Services this year and will be interning at Harvard Legal Aid Bureau this summer.

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