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Advocates are concerned shelter limits raise stakes for housing transitions in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Statehouse.
Jesse Costa
The Massachusetts Statehouse.

With restrictions on how long families can stay in state-run emergency shelters now gaining favor in the House and Senate, anti-homelessness advocates argue that if "artificial" time restrictions are imposed, the state also needs to invest in programs to help families exit shelter into housing.

Senators are set to debate a bill Thursday that would steer significant new revenue into the state's shelter system, while imposing new limitations on family shelter stays in an apparent attempt to control costs.

Like the bill that cleared the House earlier this month, the Senate bill could push some people out of the system after nine months, marking a major shift in a state with a law guaranteeing access to shelter for eligible families and pregnant women.

The Senate measure, however, would allow officials to award one or more 90-day extensions to shelter residents who meet certain criteria, such as single parents of children with disabilities or those who need an extension to avoid losing a job.

Advocates from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, who have been on the frontlines of advocating for those needing shelter amidst a surge in homeless families, say they both do not support any time limits to shelter -- but prefer the Senate's approach to the House's bill, which has a less generous extension policy.

The House-approved bill would temporarily limit shelter residents to stays of no more than nine months, and give another three months to those who are employed or enrolled in a job training program, pregnant women, people with certain disabilities, veterans and those facing domestic violence risks.

"We remain really concerned about any time frames," said Andrea Park of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. "Obviously, people are having difficulty leaving shelter. And in the past advocates have said 'Where are the supports to help families get out?' So that is not a bad thing, but it shouldn't be punitive. It shouldn't be that the default position is after an arbitrary date that you get kicked out."

House and Senate budget committees have said the time limits would help the state save money, with the tab to support the overburdened shelter system poised to explode to nearly $1 billion both this fiscal year and the following year.

However, with families staying an average 13 to 14 months in emergency shelter, Kelly Turley of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless said she's worried that cutting off families in need could lead to children sleeping in places not meant for human habitation, such as in airports, train stations, cars and emergency rooms.

"It's not safe for children and families to be sleeping outside. Massachusetts has historically had the lowest rate of unsheltered homelessness for families in the country, and a large part of that is because families that are eligible for shelter historically have been placed in shelter. And that's something the state has taken pride in. So even though there are thousands of families experiencing homelessness, there are very few you're seeing visibly on the street," Turley said. "Perhaps we'll have to dust off some of the studies around the dangers of unsheltered homelessness."

It appears likely that any compromise bill House and Senate Democrats will draft will include some sort of restriction on how long families can stay in the emergency housing system. Gov. Maura Healey has expressed that she is open to limits, though she hasn't explicitly said what she thinks that would look like.

If the state pursues a cap on shelter stays, Turley said, they also need to boost investments in anti-homelessness resources.

"If state lawmakers move forward with imposing an artificial time limit on how long families can stay in shelter, we hope that that is combined with increased resources for long-term housing supports like the Massachusetts rental voucher program or state-funded public housing, as well as increased investments in programs like HomeBASE that help families exit shelter into housing," Turley said.

She added that the state needs to make deeper investments into homelessness prevention "to help more families avoid getting into that situation to begin with."

This would include sending more dollars to the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, which provides families with short-term emergency funding to help them with evictions and foreclosures.

Over the past year, Turley said, the state decreased how much families and individuals can access through the RAFT program from $10,000 per year to $7,000 per year.

"For many households, that's not enough to help them avoid homelessness," she said.

Another way to help homeless families if shelter access is restricted is to remove the requirement that families and individuals already have a notice to quit from their landlord before they can access some state-funded resources, Turley said.

"And for providers and advocates, there will be a need to focus more on high quality housing search and housing placement," she said. "For many families, even once they are awarded a housing subsidy or have access to HomeBASE funds, it still takes several months to successfully exit shelter. Often that time is needed to help families find a unit where the landlord is willing to rent to them. And families often need an advocate to help them with that negotiation, so we'd need to look there as well if lawmakers make that change."

MLRI and the Coalition for the Homeless are supporting a number of amendments to the Senate bill.

An amendment Sen. Robyn Kennedy (No. 55) would remove the proposed time limits, and instead establish an annual review of continued eligibility for ongoing shelter benefits and establish criteria for ongoing eligibility. Turley said this is the amendment they are supporting first and foremost, but should it fail, they would like to see a number of other measures pass.

Two Sen. Liz Miranda amendments would codify and improve the HomeBASE rehousing program to allow more families to swiftly exit shelter into apartments of their own (amendment 31) and extend the proposed time limit from nine months to 12 months, and extend the periods between reevaluations from 90 days to 180 days (amendment 33.)

Both Turley and Park also support the Senate bill's inclusion of an advisory commission to take a look at restructuring the emergency assistance program, but support a Sen. Jamie Eldridge bill that would add families that have experienced homelessness and more providers and advocates to the commission.

The Senate bill relies on a fund of one-time resources to pay for the emergency shelter system over the next year.

"It seems like a reasonable use of that fund. Yes, we don't want to drain an escrow fund -- but this is an emergency," Park said. "I think everyone knows that."

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