By Rupa Shenoy
New England Center for Investigative Reporting
---- — Michelle Espada says she has gained 70 pounds since she moved into the Bedford Plaza Hotel.
“Eating microwaveable food. I can’t walk much anymore.” (crying) “It makes me cry sometimes because it feels like you’re drowning, all the time.”
The mother of two young boys, Espada couldn’t afford rent. She’s been on waiting lists for affordable housing for four years.
“Nothing’s changed. I’m still pending.”
Sixteen months ago Espada’s family became homeless, and she applied to the state for help. But Massachusetts has no room left for homeless families — the state’s 2,000 shelters filled up during the recession, as parents who lost their jobs, got foreclosed on, got sick, or just couldn’t earn enough, became homeless, along with their children.
“Beggars can’t be choosers and we’re going to take the help that the government can offer us, but it’s not ideal,” Espada said.
The Espada family, reduced to a refugee-like existence, is but one of nearly 2,000 families now caught in a bureaucratic morass marked by uncertainty and contradiction. Publicly, officials pronounce policies and promises, but advocates for the homeless worry that the state’s plans may not accommodate the growing ranks of those in need of shelter, or that the plans might suffer inordinate delays.
The state’s temporary fix was to contract out with hotels like the Bedford, while seeking a more permanent solution. But now the towns whose hotels have served as way stations for the homeless are pressuring the state to reform the program, leaving the families with even greater uncertainty.
In the Merrimack Valley, hotels contracted to house homeless families are located in Chelmsford , Haverhill , Methuen and Tewksbury. The state does not identify the establishments to protect the privacy of the families.
The number of homeless families temporarily housed in motels during the past year has risen from 1,400 to the current 2,065. The cost of putting a roof over the heads of each family: $82 a day.
In 2013, the bill came to $48.1 million. And temporary provisions, now in the works, will result in a projected higher cost of $100 a day.
Still, housing officials say current conditions for homeless families are simply not acceptable, at any price.
Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration once championed the “housing first” strategy of placing homeless families in permanent homes as fast as possible. Now it’s planning a $91 million expansion of the state’s shelter system of temporary housing.
Aaron Gornstein, the state official in charge of housing, said he still wants to meet the goal, first articulated two years ago, to move families out of hotels by the end of June. But now it seems the administration is sending something of a mixed message, as Patrick’s proposed budget allocates $12.3 million for the ongoing use of temporary lodging for the fiscal year that begins in July.
“We’re re-sizing our shelter system to accommodate more families so we don’t have to place them in motels,” Gornstein said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to meet our goal, and we’ll be able to have the families out of hotels. If we need to maintain the hotel program because there’s still a need for emergency shelter, we will do so.”
Some hotel stays last years
It is “theoretically possible” that families moved from hotels will stay in shelters for years, Gornstein acknowledged, since the wait for affordable or subsidized housing can now be as long as a decade. The state gives homeless families in shelters expedited status, he said. That can reduce their wait to about two years, but means others on the list wait longer. As an example of the demand, Gornstein said 95,000 families are on the waiting list for one type of subsidized housing, “section 8.”
“There is an important issue of how do we balance our housing policy to make sure that those who have been waiting also have a chance,” he said.
Massachusetts has a “right to shelter” budget provision that requires the state to house homeless families that qualify. The state’s 2,023 family shelter units filled up when the Great Recession hit, their ranks swollen by a tight housing market driving up rents and a tidal wave of foreclosures. The state legislature responded by tightening the qualifications for shelter in 2012 so applying families must prove they’re Massachusetts’ residents and have nowhere else to stay. Families must also show they’re either victims of domestic violence, a natural disaster, a no-fault eviction, or have spent a night in a place not meant for human habitation.
Despite the new eligibility requirements, homelessness spiked last summer. The Commonwealth saw a 70 percent increase in the number of eligible homeless families, to 3,967. The number of families at the Bedford Plaza topped 90. In all, the state spent $51.3 million last year to house homeless families — including 2,008 school-age children— in hotel rooms with no kitchens, no play space, and little transportation to jobs.
“That was the turning point where we felt there was a need to really look at the shelter system capacity that we have and adjust it to what we saw as the current demand,” Gornstein said.
In September, the Patrick administration decided to expand the shelter system by 82 percent, or 1,650 family shelter units, by this spring, Gornstein said. He said 650 additional units are already funded and being brought on-line. If the legislature approves $76 million in funding proposed in Patrick’s budget, 55 non-profit housing contractors will complete the remaining 1,000 by April.
The new shelters will each house as many as seven families at a cost to the state of $100 per family, per day, compared to $82 per day in hotels and motels, said Executive Director Tom Lorello of housing contractor Heading Home.
“Right now the consequences of waiting for us to get the number of housing units up is too great,” he said, “so we also have to act on this front too and make sure we’re getting up the shelters that’ll offer an alternative to the hotels, because otherwise you’ll have families staying in these hotels for years.”
Robyn Frost, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, agreed that Gornstein is taking the best course of action available.
“Sadly, if a family is homeless today the only place for them to turn for immediate placement for them and their children is emergency shelter,” she said. “Do I think in the long run it’s the right thing? Absolutely not. But it’s a quagmire right now.”
Commission: State can save $6K annually per family
Massachusetts essentially backed itself into a corner, said Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, the state association of shelters. The state failed to make a big enough investment in long-term affordable housing, she said, even after a special commission appointed by Gov. Patrick found in 2007 that the most efficient use of taxpayer money was placing homeless families in permanent homes. Gov. Deval Patrick then made an historic commitment to “housing first.” So when the homelessness crisis hit, the state had to take costly temporary measures, Hayes said.
“Congregate housing” – or group homes with on-site supportive services – “is the new affordable housing,” she said.
Patrick’s special commission found the state saves $5,748 per person, per year, once it moves a homeless family from temporary shelter to permanent housing.
“Money is being wasted in the sense that we’re spending so much on short-term solutions and so much on hotels,” Hayes said. “But we can’t just stop everything and put children in the street and say ‘hold on, we’re going to build housing now.’ So it’s hard, and that’s the trap.”
Gornstein said “most” of the families in hotels now will eventually go into affordable housing, including new units funded by $1.4 billion approved by the legislature last session. But Chris Norris, executive director of the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership — the state’s largest regional provider of rental assistance – said only a small proportion of that housing will be cheap enough for the homeless families in hotels.
“If you dig deeply at the numbers, the majority of housing built under almost any of our programs does not serve the lowest income families,” Norris said. “And if we have 4,000 families in shelters tonight, the majority of them will not be served by the housing that’s being built.”
“It’s true that some affordable apartments are serving working families that maybe are a more moderate income, but a significant portion are assisting those who are extremely low income, and it is our top priority to do that,” he said.
Gornstein also insists he can move all families out of hotels by the end of June.
“It’s challenging, but I like to be optimistic,” he said.
That’s unrealistic, said Ruth Bourquin of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, who’s representing families in hotels suing the state.
“It’s impossible,” she said. “We are never going to solve this problem until we start facing reality about how big the problem is and how hard it is to solve, and potentially how expensive it is to solve.”
Meanwhile, many homeless families in hotels are simply waiting for the state to act, including 48 remaining at the Bedford Plaza. Those families include 101 individuals who are 20 years-old or younger. They’re among hundreds of homeless children statewide who are spending more and more time in unstable situations, with fragmented educations and exposure to a constant flow of strangers.
Those waiting at the Bedford Plaza include Gihan Abdeleziz, her husband, and her baby boy.
An Egyptian immigrant, Abdeleziz says she’s stranded at the hotel — she hasn’t left it in weeks because she doesn’t have the right clothes to walk long stretches in the cold.
“Is this punishment? Because we ask for help?” she asks.
Abdeleziz said she can’t understand why Massachusetts taxpayers would spend so much money to keep her in a place where it’s hard to get to jobs in the city or connect with support services that would help lift her family out of poverty.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (necir.org)is a nonprofit newsroom based at Boston University and the studios of WGBH radio and TV. NECIR interns Michael Bottari, Rebecca Lee and Madelyn Powell assisted with the research for this story.