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Report says motel stay should start to fade out

Date: 5/26/2010

May 26, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

In the wake of a story that received worldwide coverage, a Boston-based foundation issued a white paper on homelessness last week urging state officials to transfer funding from programs putting homeless families into motels to programs that can prevent homelessness and promote rapid rehousing.

Geraldine McCafferty, deputy director of Homeless and Special Needs Housing for the city of Springfield, and Peter Gagilardi, executive director of HAP Housing, joined Deborah Fung and Susanne Beaton of the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation on the steps of a homeless shelter operated by HAP in Springfield to discuss "Ending Family Homelessness in Massachusetts: A New Approach for the Emergency Assistance Program."

The story of a homeless man living at the state's expense at the Econo Lodge in Chicopee who is accused of trying to trade a baby for either malt liquor or crack cocaine put renewed focus on the effectiveness of the state's program to house homeless families in motel rooms.

According to the report, between July 2009 and February 2010 about 20,000 families in the state were in fear of losing their homes and sought assistance. Only 3,000 families found the help they needed. Many of the remaining families were housed in shelters and motels. The state is spending about $2.3 million a month for motel stays.

Gagliardi said, "The answer for homelessness is a home, not a shelter, not a hotel room."

The report called for two key policy shifts:

• "The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) should consider more flexible eligibility criteria allowing providers to serve families with the appropriate levels of assistance.

• "[DHCD] should provide families with a shelter 'exit plan' with a certain time period so shelter and motel stays can be shortened."

The report also recommended refocusing funds from emergency shelter programs to long-term stable housing plans and changing the present "one size fits all" to a customized approach to better fit a family's needs.

While Beaton believes the Patrick Administration has "done everything it can to set more of the framework [for a shift in policy] in motion," it will take greater emphasis from the Legislature to make it happen.

Beaton added that "no one in the state, the Legislature and cities likes motels" as a solution.

Beaton said the "Housing First" approach Springfield has undertaken provides more permanent solutions for the homeless. McCafferty said the Springfield program has been getting people out of shelters and back into homes.

With Housing First, there are programs to prevent homelessness from happening by assisting homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure as well as moving homeless people into permanent housing with support services.

"What needs to happen is a permanent shift [of policy]," McCafferty said.

While Beaton praised DHCD for trying to deal with different solutions, she said, "They've gone as far as they go in that without making it the business plan of Massachusetts."

Gagliardi noted there is about $4 million in funding for re-housing in the Senate budget for the next fiscal year, which would help make a transition, but the state faces some difficulty.

"[The economy makes it] a tough time to make the change ... We can't change overnight as there are a whole number of people in the system," Gagliardi said. He added that federal dollars to provide assistance to families have been exhausted.

At a visit to a daycare center operated by Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Headstart on Thursday, Gov. Deval Patrick told Reminder Publications the Legislature has worked with his administration in supporting a transition to a Housing First approach to homelessness.

He said what has complicated the state's plans was the "unprecedented level of demand for emergency shelter because of the economic calamity."

"No one prefers motels and so on," he said.

Patrick added the interagency task force on homelessness chaired by Lt. Gov. Tim Murray is taking the steps necessary to switch the state over to Housing First.

"Everyone believes and know the solution is permanent housing and for certain people, for that to be successful, that means wrap-around services," he added.


In the two Western Massachusetts communities where the majority of the homeless have been housed in motels and hotels, the program has placed additional stresses on local governments.

In January, a baby boy of a homeless woman staying in the Clarion Hotel in West Springfield was found dead. Officials said the baby and an older sibling had been left alone for hours. In May, West Springfield firefighters responded to a fire at the Quality Inn caused by overloading a circuit with too many kitchen appliances.

Last week, Matthew Brace, living at the Econo Lodge in Chicopee, was charged with reckless endangerment when he allegedly tried to trade his three-month old baby for "two forties," a reference to either malt liquor or crack cocaine.

Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette said the death of the child in West Springfield spurred him to create a task force in March to monitor what is happening in the city's motels where the homeless are housed. The Health Department as well as police and fire officials have been involved to make sure unauthorized appliances, such a hot plates, are removed.

He added there have not been "real spikes" in police calls from the motels involved.

There are about 101 families currently living in Chicopee motels with about three-quarters of those at the Econo Lodge. About 10 of those families have ties to the city of Chicopee.

"It's created a small neighborhood there," he said. He added the staff at the Econo Lodge have been "very cooperative" with city officials.

Chicopee has had a long history with "Housing First" solutions for homelessness, Bissonnette said. The city has received a $540,000 federal grant that will be administered through the Valley Opportunity Council (VOC) for homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing. Bissonnette explained that everyone receiving fuel assistance in the city through the VOC may qualify for assistance to help with utility bills and mortgage payments in order to prevent foreclosure and homelessness.

The motel program "doesn't make any sense for the state and for the people involved," Bissonnette said. It prevents the homeless from rebuilding their lives and establishing roots in a community, he asserted.

The situation is worse for children, he said, who are brought to Western Massachusetts from cities such as Boston, Lowell and Lawrence and have to adjust to new schools.

Since the homeless often start off at a shelter and then go to a motel room, the children are bumped from one school system to another, he explained. State law compels municipalities to add some stability to these children's lives by requiring they be bused to the school in which they started. The new host city can then charge the city where the student attends school for transportation costs.

Bissonnette doesn't think this system works well as cities exchange bills with one another.

West Springfield Mayor Edward Gibson is blunt in his assessment of the motel program.

"It's not efficient. It's not helping them transition back to the workplace. It's the wrong way to go," he said.

A "Housing First" program makes "absolute sense" to Gibson.

He said some of the homeless in West Springfield have had motel stays ranging from 30 to 90 days.

Like Chicopee, West Springfield public health and safety officials have stepped up inspections of the motels and hotels housing the homeless. Gibson said the homeless couldn't have hot plates or refrigerators in their rooms.

"They are living from meal to meal. It's a waste of money," he said.