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Practice of using hotels for homeless families dwindles

March 8, 2013
<b>The Econolodge is Chicopee is one of the local motels has been used by the state to house homeless families.</b><br>Reminder Publications photo by G. Michael Dobbs

The Econolodge is Chicopee is one of the local motels has been used by the state to house homeless families.
Reminder Publications photo by G. Michael Dobbs

By Carley Dangona and G. Michael Dobbs

WEST SPRINGFIELD — The practice of placing homeless families into hotels is nearing its end as grassroots organizations, local and state agencies work jointly to find permanent living solutions for families in need.

Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary for the Department of Housing & Community Development, explained to Reminder Publications that placing families in hotels and motels was necessary at a time when the needs of many exceeded the resources shelters could provide.

"Many of the families lived for six to 12 months in one room. On average, there were two or three children per family. It was difficult for the kids to attend school. It was difficult for the parents to get and keep jobs," he said.

Gornstein said that overall in the Commonwealth, the use of hotel rooms to house the homeless has decreased 45 percent since July 1, 2012 because of the implementation of efforts to find permanent homes and to offer support until a family is stable.

For example, in West Springfield as of March 1, only 10 families remained in the hotel program.

He believes that within the next 18 months the use of hotels will be completely discontinued. Gornstein said the state has been using hotels to house the homeless since the 1980s.

The cost to the state for placing each family in a hotel is $3,000 a month and Gornstein said the state will save money by using this strategy.

"The goal is to set families back on their feet," Gornstein said. "It takes a comprehensive approach — a coalition of service agencies. We link them with programs and services of their choice and work with them long-term so they can become self-sufficient."

He continued, "The success is due to the coordination of agencies, political support from local elected officials and the families' willingness to move forward. Every family is different and we work intensely with each family."

Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette said that putting people in hotels is "bad public policy" and welcomes the change.

He noted that municipalities with homeless hotel populations must pay for school transportation costs of the children, still a contentious issue between cities and the state.

There is additional pressure on the school systems to meet the needs of these children. Bissonnette noted that if children are not reading at grade level in the third grade, studies have shown they have a greater chance of not finishing school.

"If we don't get them caught up, we'll lose them for their entire lives," he said.

Bissonnette added that for the money the state pays for housing a family in a hotel for a year — $36,000 — a foreclosed home could be obtained to house a family permanently.

State Sen. James Welch supports the change to transition families out of hotels and motels. "The practice is not safe from a public safety standpoint. It's not safe from a public health standpoint. [Some families] didn't have proper places to refrigerate or cook food," he said.

He continued, "It was a bad policy from the beginning. The cost alone to taxpayers was reason enough [to find alternative housing means]. We need to continue providing adequate resources and funding for other programs."

Welch explained that guidelines have since been put in place to better regulate the program. He equated the task of regulating the practice to "trying to turn around the Titanic," adding that despite working on the issue for several years, the reform is "just starting to make headway."

One strategy for decreasing the amount of families in hotels and motels Welch offered, is the verification that families are "from Massachusetts and are truly in an emergency situation — just because other states are ignoring their responsibility [doesn't mean we can take it on]."

Welch cited programs such as the Commonwealth's HomeBASE program that offers living spaces other than motels or shelters for a specified time period; the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition that offers short-term financial assistance to prevent families from becoming homeless; and an increased availability of funds in other programs as reasons for the successful transition away from the option.

Gornstein said, "HAPHousing is doing a tremendous job. Through the HomeBASE program, we've been able to help 277 families exit hotel and motel shelters."

HAPHousing is a nonprofit that works with community-based organizations to provide affordable housing. The HomeBASE program provides up to $4,000 a month to families in need or rental assistance, according to Gornstein.

Gornstein said the "significant progress" in Western Massachusetts is attributed to "intensive focus" on the issue in this region where leadership and resources meld to create a supportive atmosphere where families are given a chance to strive.

"We've made significant strides, but we have to keep the momentum going. We're not out of the woods yet. The goal is to continue to prevent homelessness by reinvesting the savings in affordable housing for residents, creating more affordable units for families and revitalizing existing units — all of which require funding that will be provided by the savings on motels and hotels," he stated.

"It is part of Gov. Deval Patrick's 'Choosing Growth In Our Communities' agenda to keep moving forward. We hope to have the support of the Legislature. We want to continue to reduce the hotel and motel populations in Western Massachusetts and throughout the state," Gornstein continued.

"Once we get all the families out, we have to make a commitment and put in writing to never go back to the [old] policy," Welch added.

"We want families to thrive," Gornstein said.

When asked how having a permanent home impacted the families he answered, "It provides a tremendous amount of security — they go from homelessness to a safe, permanent home. Knowing that you're not going to get evicted is a precondition for being successful. The families can use this security as a platform to gain employment and increase their income."

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