SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 2, 2013

Danvers sees rise in motel families

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — DANVERS — The number of homeless families living in Danvers motels is spiking upward again.

The town has seen nearly a 27 percent increase in the number of families in less than a month — from 112 on Aug. 20 to 142 on Sept. 17.

The numbers had leveled off to 100 to 110 during the summer months.

One factor in the increase may be a $20 million cut in the Section 8 housing program because of federal budget cuts. That took away an avenue the state was using to move homeless families out of motels and into more permanent housing, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

“We have had to freeze Section 8,” said Matthew Sheaff, director of communications for the agency.

The Section 8 program allows families to get a voucher for rent and pay 30 percent of their income for rent, while the government picks up the rest. The program is administered through local housing authorities.

Other factors include rising rents in the Greater Boston area, as vacancy rates have dropped, increasing the demand for apartments. That means many families are struggling to make ends meet, leading to more evictions, according to Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the state Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We are working very hard to re-house the families out of the hotels and motels,” Gornstein said, noting that one-room hotel and motel rooms are not appropriate for families, as most have no cooking facilities and few have play spaces for kids.

The state is scheduled to phase out the use of motel rooms as emergency assistance shelters by June 30, but it’s not clear where people will go after that.

As a town, Danvers has struggled to recoup costs associated with the influx, especially those related to school-age children.

There are 225 children — 98 of them of school age — living with these 142 homeless families. Those children are allowed to attend Danvers public schools or, if their parents prefer, be bused for free back to their home communities for schooling.

The state auditor has ruled that costs to transport students back to the schools in their former communities represents an unfunded mandate and should be paid for by the state. Danvers received $100,000 for homeless transportation in the last fiscal year.

One bright note is that Danvers motels are housing a smaller percentage of the state’s homeless families — 7.9 percent, according to Bill Bates, an aide to Danvers state Rep. Ted Speliotis. In August 2012, Danvers housed 9.3 percent of the state’s homeless families.

“The problem is the state total keeps climbing, and we are probably at the highest numbers we have ever been (statewide),” Speliotis said.

Speliotis said another reason for the increase in motel families is that homeless families “are more aggressively applying” for the program. He said the state’s practice of putting up the homeless in motels is attracting people from other states, none of which offer a similar benefit. About 10 to 15 percent of homeless families in motels come from out of state, he said.

“It’s a program no one is happy with,” Speliotis said, adding that it is inappropriate housing for families and is costly for taxpayers. The state spent $100 million last year “trying to find a way to reduce the numbers, and it’s not going down,” he said.

Selectmen Chairman Gardner Trask said he was not aware of the recent increase in numbers, but he said he hoped the state would end the practice.

“I’d love to find out what kind of plan they have to deal with this come July 1. What is the transition plan?” Trask asked.

There are programs aimed at keeping families from landing in motels, such as the RAFT program, which stands for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, which helps families who have fallen behind on rent or utility bills and are facing eviction. That’s helped 450 families since Aug. 1, Gornstein said.

The state is also seeking to create 1,000 units of affordable housing for very low-income families, and the department has seen a more than $20 million increase in its capital budget to build more affordable homes, Gornstein said.

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

HOMELESS FAMILIES IN DANVERS MOTELS Location Aug. 20 Sept. 17 Econo Lodge: 1 30 Extended Stay: 93 93 Motel 6: 19 18 Total Children ages 5-18: 72 98 Non-school-age children: 99 127 Total children: 171 225 Total families: 112 142 Fewest number of homeless families living in Danvers motels in recent years: 68 as of 4/27/11 Highest number of homeless families living in motels: 195 as of 11/20/12