Massachusetts is spending an enormous amount of money housing the homeless in hotels and motels across the state. It is an impractical and inefficient attempt to solve the homelessness crisis, one the sluggish state bureaucracy has made little effort to improve.
Rupa Shenoy of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting looked at the problem. Her story was published in the Sunday Eagle-Tribune.
The housing crisis has been building for years now, during the recent recession and jobless recovery. The state’s 2,000 shelters quickly filled up as families lost their jobs, were evicted from apartments or foreclosed out of their homes.
The state’s solution has been to contract with hotels and motels to provide temporary shelter for these homeless families. But in some cases, the “temporary” solution has dragged on for more than a year. In the Merrimack Valley, these contracted hotels are in Haverhill, Methuen, Chelmsford and Tewksbury.
A hotel room is no place to raise a family. There are no cooking or laundry facilities, little to no privacy and no place for children to play. And while it’s better than living on the street, the families living in the hotel rooms are not thriving. Michelle Espada, living in a hotel in Bedford, told Shenoy she has gained 70 pounds eating nothing but food that can be prepared in a microwave. Espada, the mother of two boys, has been on waiting lists for affordable housing for four years.
“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.
And the hotel program is extraordinarily expensive, costing $82 per day to house a single family. Now, a planned $91 million state expansion of the temporary housing program may boost costs to $100 per day.
As one of our readers noted, that’s $3,000 a month -- enough to fund a $500,000 mortgage. It’s enough to rent two $1,500 per month apartments.
No one is suggesting giving free homes to the homeless or renting them apartments, but this is an extraordinarily expensive and inefficient means of dealing with the problem of homelessness.
Two years ago, the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick vowed to get the homeless out of the hotels. Their solution has been to expand by 82 percent the number of shelter units available. As many as 1,650 new units should be available by April.
But these units, too, are expensive and will drive the cost of housing these homeless up to $100 per day.
Clearly, the solution is to get these families into permanent housing. But there are 95,000 people on the waiting list for “Section 8” subsidized housing. Getting a unit can take a decade. The state expedites the applications of people in shelters. Still the wait can be two years.
There is a real need for more subsidized housing in Massachusetts. The Patrick administration’s own study shows that the state can save $6,000 annually per family by moving people from temporary housing in hotels in shelters to permanent, subsidized housing. Yet the administration is shifting its priorities from getting people into permanent housing to building more temporary shelters.
The Patrick administration needs to rethink its inefficient, helter-skelter approach to housing the homeless in favor of more rational, long-term planning.
Ultimately, the solution to homelessness is an economy that creates jobs at all skill levels and that encourages the building of enough housing units that prices assume more reasonable levels. Given the Patrick administration’s taxing and regulatory proclivities, that’s a goal that may be permanently out of reach.