In case you missed it, this week is Car-Free Week in Massachusetts. We automobile owners are encouraged to improve our environment and our health by taking more walks and leaving the car at home. A great idea — at least for those of us who are fortunate enough to have both a home and a car.
These days, for many of the homeless families who are applying for emergency shelter under very strict guidelines that were just imposed by the Patrick Administration, a car now may also be their only home. The new rules close the door to shelter to nearly all the families whose very low incomes (which average about $700 a month) might allow them to qualify in the first place. Families who have no other housing, who have no options for staying doubled-up with other families or friends, and who have no other place to stay even temporarily are not eligible for shelter unless and until the parents and the children first stay in a place “not meant for human habitation,” like a train station, a park, the streets, a hospital waiting room or a car. You’ll start hearing stories about these families, and the stories may make you wonder how we got to the place where the Commonwealth puts desperate families at such risk before it allows them into shelter. Especially when the state also threatens to report parents who allow their children to stay in such places for investigation of abuse and neglect.
Tracing how we got to this place takes us back to the Patrick Administration’s decision, back in 2007, to embrace the “Housing First” model to provide services to homeless families: The theory behind Housing First is simple enough — finding housing for homeless families is a better solution than placing them in shelter. Policymakers are understandably attracted to any model that promises better service at possibly less cost. The Patrick Administration was sold early, and over the course of the past five years has persuaded the Legislature to adopt a shifting variety of Housing First proposals.
While Housing First may sound like a simple and obvious solution to homelessness, in order for it to succeed in making shelter unnecessary requires three conditions: a sufficient number of relatively affordable rental units; a commitment by the state to pay subsidies to help homeless families who would qualify for shelter (and therefore by definition are in deep poverty) pay their monthly rent as well as start-up costs; and upward mobility on the part of the formerly homeless families, so that they can ultimately afford their apartments without state assistance and the subsidies can passed along to help others. All this in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. And during the worst economic recession of our lifetimes.
As it turned out, the recession made attaining the conditions for a successful Housing First policy nearly impossible. The supply of affordable rental units, already inadequate, was further hurt by the foreclosure crisis that first hit owners of multi-family properties in low and moderate income neighborhoods particularly hard, resulting in a double whammy — many rental units in these foreclosed buildings were unavailable for long periods, and the tenants who were displaced through foreclosures swelled the demand for affordable rental housing. The upward mobility of the shelter population on which Housing First was premised was a thing of the past. The poverty rate in Massachusetts grew between 2007 and 2011, and the unemployment rate, which was 4.5 percent, when Housing First was launched, reached a high of 10.4 percent in January 2010. Most significantly, in the midst of a severe budget crisis, the state failed to follow through on a commitment to provide the subsidies necessary for Housing First to succeed. This year, for example, the state funded about 500 new rental subsidies, most of which will go to families who were in shelter before the new restrictions were imposed. But more than 5,000 families will be denied shelter this year.
The Patrick Administration has apparently closed its eyes to whether its plans to reduce the family shelter program so sharply in the middle of this recession are realistic or appropriate. In fact, Lieutenant Governor Murray expressed some frustration to the Globe last summer that the transition away from shelter was not going quickly enough. “We need to be serious and not build in loopholes where people can bypass what we’re trying to do” (which he said was to provide a more “dignified” way to help them).
And so, under the new very restrictive rules, the few families who might still be eligible for shelter must first beg relatives friends and strangers to stay for a few nights here and there, even if the overcrowding violates the lease and puts the host at risk of eviction. If they do not have these options, they’re still ineligible until they have stayed in a place “not meant for human habitation.” Families are sleeping in parks, in train stations and in cars, exposed to the elements, to exploitation by strangers promising kindness, and to crime.
All this would be bad enough if the Patrick Administration were not still insisting that it is still somehow providing a “strong safety net for those families in emergencies.” And if winter were not on the way. Homeless families without cars will be left on the streets. Those with cars will be “home” in Massachusetts.