By Robyn Frost and Sue Heilman

The Patrick administration is seeking new and innovative ways to deal with the growing number of families experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts. Under a Housing First strategy, the governor is seeking to hold the state’s housing agency responsible for finding permanent, affordable housing for homeless families. We applaud the governor’s efforts to find permanent solutions to homelessness.

At the same time, however, Patrick is proposing changes that will limit homeless families’ access to emergency shelter and services. These restrictions should not be implemented as the recession deepens and more families than ever are in need of emergency shelter. Children, who constitute most of the people living as part of a homeless family, will suffer, resulting in long-term harm, at a high cost to society.

Unless supplemental funding to help families with children experiencing homelessness is quickly provided, many of these new limitations will take effect as soon as April 1.

Fortunately, the proposed restrictions are unnecessary to close the shelter program’s projected deficit. Under the new federal stimulus package for which the governor personally advocated, Massachusetts is eligible to receive more than $17 million this fiscal year and another $23 million next year in emergency TANF funds that are specifically intended to help the state meet the costs of serving more low-income families in need. The state and local communities will also receive over $44 million in stimulus funds to help prevent homelessness and to re-house families experiencing homelessness.

The challenges involved in ending homelessness are significant. The number of families in the state’s emergency shelter system has increased 40 percent in the past year alone, rising to an all time high of 2,695 families per night. Beyond the doors of shelter, tens of thousands more families and individuals are facing homelessness and are staying in “doubled up” situations with family or friends, or in unsafe conditions. These trends are reflected all around the country due to the national economic downturn.

Things were already bad before the current economic crisis hit. There has been growing income inequality in Massachusetts. Many low-income families did not benefit from the state’s economic recovery following the recession of 2001. Real hourly wages for the lowest-income workers saw an actual decline, and poverty in Massachusetts increased from 8.7 percent in 2001 to almost 10 percent in 2007.

Now, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression is taking its toll. Unemployment is up, and foreclosures are rising. The result: more people than ever are reaching out for state-funded shelter and services at a time when the state revenue needed to pay for these services is declining.

Through the Massachusetts Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness, the state is looking at ways to find permanent solutions to prevent and end homelessness. Helping families experiencing homelessness to secure affordable housing will allow families and their children to move out of shelters and save the state money over the long run.

This worthy goal cannot be reached, however, without an increase in permanent housing subsidies. Until those resources are developed, and effective homelessness prevention strategies are implemented statewide, shelters and other temporary supports will be necessary to help families affected by the recession. Protecting this safety net for families with children experiencing homelessness is a moral imperative in these difficult economic times. And thankfully, Congress is providing the state with the means to do so.
Frost is executive director of The Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. Heilman is executive director of Horizons for Homeless Children.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Massachusetts Forum. 3/09