BOSTON (AP) — By now, Massachusetts wasn’t supposed to have any homeless families.
In 2008, Gov. Deval Patrick set a goal of virtually eliminating family homelessness in five years.
In part, the program was intended to better detect when families were on the verge of falling into homelessness — and then move in swiftly with aid and support.
Five years later, record numbers of homeless families are straining the state’s shelter system, with about 2,000 families finding temporary housing in dozens of hotels and motels across the state and approximately an equal number staying in family shelters.
For homeless advocates, shelter operators, state officials and, most acutely, the homeless themselves, the maddening persistence of the lack of affordable places to live in Massachusetts can seem intractable.
Patrick and others point to a number of reasons for the surge in homelessness, from the yearslong economic downturn to a pullback in federal aid to Massachusetts’ status as a “right to shelter” place, meaning the state is obligated to find a place to stay for all those who are homeless.
But even Patrick concedes that simply extending the state’s existing anti-homelessness strategies isn’t going to work in the long run.
“We’re going to have to think in some fresh ways rather than just try to do better what we’re already doing,” Patrick said. “I’m really worried about this. It’s not just the spike in the number. It’s what the economy has done to vulnerable people.”
The state has an array of programs aimed at keeping families from becoming homeless — and getting them back into homes when they do.
One is the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT, program, which offers up to $4,000 a year to help low-income families that are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
In the 2013 fiscal year, the program helped keep more than 3,000 families from becoming homeless, according to Aaron Gornstein, Massachusetts undersecretary for housing and community development.
Another is the HomeBASE program, which provides help paying rent, utility bills and other expenses so people can stay in their homes. In 2013, that program helped keep an additional 1,000 families out of shelters, Gornstein said.
The state also has the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, a version of the federal Section 8 program, which offers rental subsidies to tenants and developments.
Since 2007, the state has created more than 4,000 deeply subsidized units, including more than 700 in 2013 alone, according to Gornstein.
The state also has been spending about $100 million each year to modernize its existing public housing units, rehabbing and bringing back into service about 400 vacant public housing apartments in the past two years. Since 2010, the state also has helped preserve 10,000 privately owned, affordable, subsidized units that were at risk of being converted into market-rate units.
Gornstein said daunting challenges remain. He pointed to the 5,400 families for whom the HomeBASE temporary rental assistance is ending this fiscal year even as the state forges ahead with its goal of getting homeless families out of hotels and shelters.
“The longer a family stays, the more difficult it is to leave,” he said.
Boston resident Altia Taylor knows the challenges firsthand. For the past five years, she has bounced from shelters to hotels.
Her current temporary housing situation is ending in January, and she hopes to land an apartment in a public housing development for herself, her 15-year-old daughter and her 8-year-old son.
“This long-term instability has me completely out of character that I’m so fed up and overwhelmed,” Taylor, 31, told a Statehouse committee recently. “If I could figure out a way to pay market rate, I would. If I could own my own home, I would. I would have done it a long time ago.”
Those on the front lines of the housing fight say they’re trying to stay upbeat.
Peter Gagliardi, president of HAPHousing, a nonprofit housing agency in Springfield, blamed the housing crisis on stagnant wages, the offshoring of jobs and a minimum wage that hasn’t kept up with inflation. He said about 200,000 families in the state are spending more than half their income on rent.
Each time the state chips away at the number of families in hotels and shelters, he said, the problem gets worse.
“We’re actually spiraling up,” he said. “Not only do we have to go up the hill, but the hill gets higher.”
Chris Norris, executive director of the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, pointed to a 2012 study that found that the vast majority of homeless families in Massachusetts are led by single mothers with an average income of $8,727. He said a study of homeless families in the Boston area also found that just 3 percent originally came from outside Massachusetts.
Norris warned that solving the problem of family homelessness “will be time-consuming and it will be expensive.”
The problem has already become an issue in next year’s governor’s race, with Republican candidate Charlie Baker vowing to work during his first year in office to eliminate the practice of placing homeless families in hotels and motels.
Patrick, a Democrat who isn’t seeking re-election, said he hasn’t read Baker’s plan, but he’s willing to consider any good ideas.
“If there’s enough detail to put it in place and I think it’s working, I’ll probably do it before the election,” he said.
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