SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 3, 2013

State to stop using motels as shelters

Danvers officials will learn more next week

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — DANVERS — Town officials will know more in a conference call next week about state plans to phase out the use of motels as temporary homeless shelters here and across the state.

Town Manager Wayne Marquis, who sits on an advisory board to the governor’s Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness, said the call will detail how the state plans to end the use of motels as emergency homeless family shelters by June 30, 2014.

By then, Marquis said, it is expected that “all contracts (with motels) will be over and it will be no more.”

Matthew Sheaff, director of communications for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, confirmed plans to stop contracting with hotels and motels for shelter space in a year and a half. The state wants to shift from using shelters to providing financial assistance for families to secure housing.

State officials, Sheaff said, realize that the use of motels as shelters has been less than ideal for families with children, as they have a single living space with no cooking facilities or places for kids to play.

The use of motels has also proved costly. Last year, the state spent $45 million to house homeless families in motels, paying a rate of $80 a night, Sheaff said. The number of homeless families peaked in motels last month around 1,800, and that number has dropped to 1,700 families today statewide.

The state houses families in motels when its 2,000-shelter-bed system overflows. Ending that practice, even though it will not be for 18 months, is a positive sign, Marquis said.

“Any commitment in that direction is potentially a good thing,” Marquis said.

Danvers has received its fair share of homeless families from various cities and towns throughout the state, who live in one of four budget motels in town. In the winter of 2010, for instance, during a prior influx, Danvers was home to about 10 percent of families living in motels statewide.

Marquis said the latest numbers he has seen were from October, when 192 families with more than 300 children were living in motels. The influx of so many needy has strained the resources of the town’s social service efforts, including the food pantry, which is entirely staffed by a core group of volunteers, many of them senior citizens.

The People to People Food Pantry, which is overseen by the Danvers Community Council and relies on donations from individuals, restaurants, churches and civic organizations, delivers food to those at the motel who do not have transportation, plus permanent Danvers residents who are in need.

“It’s taxing on our resources, for sure,” Marquis said.

Marquis said he also heard that some motels, not just those in Danvers, “are looking to move in another direction” and stop contracting with the state as homeless shelters. Marquis said he will be told more details about that next week.

The number of school-age children has put a strain on services, especially those for student transportation.

Danvers was set to receive approximately $150,000 from the state budget for homeless student transportation, Marquis said in an earlier interview. Cities and towns split the cost of such transportation when homeless families living in motels or otherwise choose to send their children back to the schools where they used to live, under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Last year, the state auditor, spurred by an appeal by state Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, ruled that these costs are an unfunded mandate and the state should pay the tab.

Marquis said recent state budget cuts chopped the amount earmarked for homeless student transportation in half.

“I do favor the phasing out of the program,” Speliotis said, “and I have said this all along.” Speliotis said he proposed ending the program when the state unemployment rate drops to about 6 percent. He also favors placing a six-month state residency requirement for those to be placed in a motel room. With Massachusetts the only state to offer families emergency shelter, Speliotis said the program of putting homeless families in motels should not last forever, and another solution should be found.

“My take is, I think that it’s consistent with what I have been hearing from the administration ... the fact that we put $100 million into this year’s budget and the numbers will not go down.” Historically, the program ends when the economy improves, Speliotis said. With the improving economy, motels will also want to have rooms available for guests.

“It’s a lousy way for young people to be treated,” said selectmen Chairman Bill Clark of the practice of putting homeless families with children in motels.

Clark and Selectman Dan Bennett both said they are glad the state is ending the practice, and they pointed out that the town has yet to receive the promised reimbursement for homeless student transportation. At a recent meeting, the cost to Danvers was estimated to be $269,000, Bennett said.

Both Clark and Bennett said the town loses money in another way when homeless families fill up rooms: The motel no longer has to pay room taxes after the room has been occupied for 30 days. Some families linger in rooms for months.

“I’m glad to see they finally realized it’s the wrong thing to do to stuff a family into a motel room without a stove,” said Bennett, who said he was also concerned about what the state would do once it ends the use of motels as shelters.

In May, an opinion piece written by Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, the chairman of the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness, and Aaron Gornstein, the undersecretary of Housing and Community Development, said reforms this year would lead to the elimination of motels as overflow shelters. Gornstein came to Beverly to announce $105 million in grants statewide to build more affordable housing and plans to get homeless people into permanent housing.

To move homeless families out of motel rooms, Sheaff said the state plans to use its HomeBase program, which provides $4,000 in assistance for housing, the Mass Rental Voucher program and other rental assistance programs. Murray recently announced a goal of creating 1,000 units of “supportive housing,” which would provide medical, job training, child care and a host of services to get homeless families the support they need. Murray also announced the award of $2 million to local housing authorities to bring vacant public housing units back online.

Clark said it would be more cost-effective for the state to pay the rent where the family is living before they become homeless.

Officials for North Shore Community Action in Peabody, which provides assistance to homeless families regionally, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.