BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — State and local officials are doubtful Massachusetts will stop placing homeless families in budget motels by the end of June as promised.
“Certainly, there is no expectation this program will be gone as of June 30,” Town Manager Wayne Marquis said. “I hope I’m wrong.”
Danvers, with motels set along or near major highways, has long been at the forefront of the debate about their use as emergency family shelters. About 9 percent of the 1,980 homeless families sheltered in motels statewide were living in three Danvers motels as of Feb. 18, the latest week the figures were available.
The state’s program has stretched the resources of the local food pantry and the school department, which, under federal law, must pay to transport students back to schools where they lived prior to becoming homeless. The town splits the cost with the other district. The state has failed to fully reimburse this transportation cost, Marquis said.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development resorts to motels when its 2,400-bed family shelter system reaches capacity. The state contracts with a third-party vendor to provide the rooms, paying $82 a night, said agency spokesman Matthew Sheaff. That works out to be $2,542 a month.
State officials want to end this costly program by the end of June, but local lawmakers think it will continue.
“It’s finally clear they are not going to shut down the motels,” Danvers state Rep. Ted Speliotis said.
Department of Housing and Community Development Undersecretary Aaron Gornstein said the agency is working “aggressively” to end the use of hotels and motels as emergency family shelters.
However, the Bay State is a right-to-shelter state, Gornstein said, meaning homeless families can’t be turned away.
“We are not going to leave a family unserved,” Gornstein said, adding, “our No. 1 goal is to eliminate the program.”
The state spent $46.5 million on hotels as emergency shelters in fiscal 2013, according to figures in the governor’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget. Spending could be as high as $52 million this fiscal year. The governor’s new budget, however, slashes this item to $12.3 million, a 73.5 percent reduction.
Gornstein said the state is focusing on programs to prevent families from winding up in motels, including grants of up to $4,000 for rental or utility bill assistance. Last year, the Legislature passed a $1.4 billion housing bond bill to create more affordable housing. The state is also helping local housing authorities fix vacant units and is creating 1,000 more congregate shelter bed units.
In the coming fiscal year, the governor wants to spend $167 million for emergency assistance and family shelters, up from more than $90 million this year. This new spending includes $45 million to expand the number of congregate shelters.
Speliotis has filed a bill, supported by state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, calling for a six-month residency requirement before a family can get a room. As the only right-to-shelter state, many families are moving to Massachusetts to get housing, Speliotis said.
The bill, which has been referred to the Joint Committee on Housing, calls for the state to stop placing families in motels if the state unemployment rate dips below 6 percent.
Lovely, who was able to secure a $20,000 grant for the Danvers People-to-People Food Pantry, said she is concerned that young kids will be stigmatized by long motel stays. She would like to see the state do a better job of capturing accurate data on the residential history of families seeking shelter.
“It defines the beginning and defines the end when people aren’t willing to take that on,” Speliotis said of his bill, “and it tends to force a solution on a situation that no one is happy with... The goal is not to feel good about hotels and motels.”
Gornstein said the state does have a residency requirement for emergency shelters, but there are constitutional problems with setting a strict residency time period.
“It’s the last resort,” Gornstein said of the hotel shelter program. “We know it’s not an ideal situation.” Families live in one room, often with little in the way of cooking facilities besides a microwave oven and a refrigerator. Often, families have no access to public transportation.
Marquis, who serves on an advisory board to the governor’s Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness, said it became clear to him the program would not end when Gornstein called him about two weeks ago to ask whether Danvers intends to run its Project Sunshine summer program for homeless school-age children living in motels.
The Recreation Department staff are making plans to run the program for the fourth summer in a row, Marquis said.
The $35,000 cost, however, is paid for entirely through donations, and Gornstein was calling to offer state help. Marquis said he is thankful for the offer and Gornstein’s efforts, and also hopes the community will step up to help pay for the program again this summer.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.
Year over year homeless families in Danvers motels
2/15/12 2/5/13 2/18/14
Total families 110 162 180
School age children (ages 5-18) 86 114 165
Non-school-age children 87 139 148
Total children 173 253 313
Source: Town of Danvers