IN BUDGET, STATE EYES WAYS TO REDUCE HOTEL USE FOR HOMELESS FAMILIES
By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON, STATE HOUSE, MAY 29, 2012…..When House and Senate lawmakers debated the annual budget this year, homelessness – and the question of what to do with the thousands of families living in motels and hotels across the state – took center stage for lengthy debates in both branches.
Both the House and Senate funded programs in the fiscal year 2013 budget to prevent families from becoming homeless; set aside money to aid previously homeless families get started in new homes; and increased funding for rental assistance. But the branches are in a quandary over what to do with the more than 1,500 families living in hotels and motels across the state, creating frustration among legislators.
Placing families in hotels and motels for months on end is unfair to them, a burden on the communities that host them, and doesn’t solve the problem, several lawmakers said during debate.
Sen. James Welch – who was part of a lengthy discussion in the Senate – told the News Service Tuesday that it was “without a doubt the worst state policy that I have seen.”
In Welch’s district, which includes Springfield, West Springfield and Chicopee, there are currently 255 families living in motels or hotels. Welch and other senators said the state’s policy of placing families in hotels when family shelters are full is unfair to them.
“I don’t know how we as a commonwealth can actually say this is a viable option,” Welch said. “As we continue to ignore it, I think we are doing a disservice the families. It fails the families; it fails the taxpayers; and it fails the communities that host these families.”
Families placed in motels are basically on their own, he said. Outreach workers with large caseloads try to do the best they can, but the structures to help people are not really in place at a motel, Welch said.
Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) said he is frustrated there has not been some headway made on the problem during the last year. There were 1,600 families in hotels and motels last year, and despite millions of dollars earmarked to address the issue, nothing changed, he said.
The state got away from housing people in motels during the mid-2000s, but when the recession hit in 2008 there was an explosion of families needing emergency shelter that pushed people into motels.
“We opened up the hotels and motels again, really after not learning a lesson in the early 2000s,” Knapik said. “The system was not able to respond quick enough.”
In Holyoke there are 133 families in motels; Chicopee has 109 and West Springfield has 106. Knapik argues after spending close to $75 million on the HomeBASE program, the state should have seen more progress. “Not to make any progress in a year, I think is unacceptable,” Knapik said.
“I hope whatever we do in the budget in 2013 it is going to make a dramatic improvement in these numbers,” Knapik added.
Aaron Gornstein, the undersecretary for housing and economic development, said the state does need to focus more on getting families out of hotels and motels. Both the Massachusetts Rental Voucher program and increases to the RAFT program will help, he said.
The RAFT program (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition) will also prevent thousands of families from becoming homeless, according to homeless advocates. Both the House and the Senate set aside $8.8 million for fiscal 2013, up from $260,000 in fiscal year 2012. RAFT helps families pay rent, move-in costs or back utilities to avoid homelessness.
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