DANVERS — Just two homeless families with six children are living in motel rooms in town as part of the state’s emergency assistance program, according to the town and the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.
That’s down from the peak of 195 families with 299 children a little over four years ago.
Back then, four separate motels in town sheltered families. Today, the two families are living in the former Extended Stay on Route 1.
“It’s over,” said state Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers. “I think, first of all, there has been an awful lot of effort put in to find alternative housing for people.”
The program to shelter homeless families in motels when state shelters are overflowing cost the state tens of millions of dollars a year, Speliotis said. More was spent on programs to house and help them.
Speliotis said the drop in numbers may also be due to a strong economy — the state’s unemployment rate stood at 2.8 percent in December.
“It also reflects a strong commitment to finding a solution, not just putting them in the streets,” he said of the Baker administration’s efforts to end the motel shelter program.
State Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, announced that two families remained in Danvers motels at the Peabody Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast Tuesday.
“These families don’t want to live in motels,” she said. “It was so bad for the kids.”
Lovely said she was grateful to the Baker administration for making it a priority to do away with this program, and for the work Speliotis did on the issue.
“We kept the heat on, so to speak, in a respectful way,” she said.
Pam Parkinson, Danvers director of senior and social services, recalls that some of these children attended a free Project Sunshine summer camp program three years in a row, meaning they had spent years living in a motel room.
“It’s not healthy for anyone, parent or child,” she said.
Those living in motels, some of whom were from Boston, Roxbury or other cities in Greater Boston, tend to become isolated with no way to get around.
“Being in a hotel along a highway in Danvers, they are trapped,” Parkinson said. “They can’t get out of the situation, they can’t move on.”
She is hopeful the Baker administration has the situation under control by finding families alternative transitional housing.
“The state can put its money to better use finding more appropriate housing for these folks,” Parkinson said.
Ending the practice
Gov. Charlie Baker, a Swampscott resident, noted during his State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday that ending the practice of using motels as shelters was a priority of his administration, along with helping families avoid homelessness in the first place. As a result, the state has trimmed the number of families in motels from 1,500 two years ago to under 100 today.
Statewide, there were 90 families sheltered in motels on Tuesday, according to the Executive Officer of Housing and Economic Development.
The state has been able to reduce the use of motels as emergency assistance shelters for families, which happens when its shelter system overflows. On Tuesday, there were 3,427 families living in shelters that were not motels, for a total of 3,527 in the emergency assistance shelter system.
The latter number represents a 23.5 percent reduction in the state’s shelter system caseload since the start of the Baker administration.
The state agency said it has been able to bring numbers down by collaborating with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to identify families at risk of becoming homeless before it happens. They are also helping families with human services needs that could cause them to lose their homes.
The state has been able to help emergency assistance-eligible families through housing subsidy programs and rental vouchers, and has stepped up affordable housing production.
One of the biggest challenges Danvers faced from having so many homeless families in motels was the federal requirement to pay to transport students back to districts where they previously lived and attended school. Danvers and the district where the student goes to school split these costs.
Speliotis wrote to the state auditor calling for the state to pick up the tab, saying the cost represented an unfunded mandate. The auditor agreed, and the state has since offered some reimbursement to cities and towns for these costs.
As recently as fiscal 2015, Danvers schools spent $312,000 to transport more than 100 students that school year, said the school’s business manager, Keith Taverna.
“Transportation costs are significantly down,” he said.
Danvers schools are still transporting 37 students due to those who have been placed in scattered site shelters but who still want to return to their schools of origin.
Taverna said the schools will spend about $80,000 to transport homeless students this school year.
One of the bills Lovely re-filed for this legislative session would support the creation of a Home Works program to allow kids in the emergency housing assistance program to attend after-school and summer programs at organizations such as the YMCA.
Homeless families in Danvers
1/16/17 1/19/16 1/20/15 1/21/14 1/15/13 1/17/12
# Families 2 79 169 180 171 99
# Children 6 138 338 305 266 156
# of Hotels 1 1 3 3 3 4
Source: Town of Danvers