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Homeless In Hotels

New policy to affect local homeless

First of two stories

GREENFIELD — The state has decided to phase out a program that has placed homeless families in local hotels for sometimes up to a year when there isn’t room in emergency shelters.

The statewide program, called HomeBASE, gives families who have become homeless through no fault of their own, a chance to find permanent affordable housing while living in a hotel, all at taxpayer expense. The state plans to phase out the program by June 30, 2014.

According to Matthew Sheaff, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees the program, it has become too expensive for taxpayers and the state, which spent more than $45 million putting hundreds of families in hotels and motels cross the state last year.

At one point last summer, there were 37 families living in two Greenfield hotels, the Quality Inn on the Mohawk Trail and the Days Inn on Colrain Road. That number decreased to 21 in November and today it is at 17.

There are currently 12 families staying at the Days Inn and five at the Quality Inn.

Sheaff said most of the families that have stayed in the Greenfield hotels have been from Franklin County and the Greenfield area.

He said families are placed in hotels or motels when the 2,100 rooms in the state’s emergency shelter system are at capacity.

Sheaff said the program has actually been around since the 1980s, but has been overwhelmed over the past five years in the afterwash of the Great Recession.

Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the DHCD, said in an earlier interview with The Recorder, that the Patrick administration wants to end the program because it is expensive, costing $3,000 a month to keep a family in a hotel or motel, and because it is a less-than-ideal place for children to live and play.

“There are no cooking facilities and no place for kids to play,” said Gornstein. “We have to do something else.”

He said the state, after eliminating the program, will instead increase its homeless prevention efforts and expand affordable housing options. He said the specifics of such plans are yet to come.

For a while, towns had to take on the responsibility of transporting homeless students to local schools, but last year the state budgeted money to reimburse schools those transportation costs. In some cases the homeless children came from out of town and Greenfield had initially been busing them to and from their old schools.

Families cannot enter hotels or motels through the program unless they have lost their homes to fire, flood or other natural disasters, are fleeing domestic violence, face eviction through no fault of their own, or if children face a health and safety risk determined by the state, according to Sheaff.

He said families must also meet income limits. For instance, a family of four cannot make more than $2,209 a month. And, families must prove Massachusetts residency.

Sheaff said when the state, which contracts with hotels and motels, is deciding where to place a family, it takes into consideration whether one or both parents work and does not move them more than 20 miles from a job.

He said living in hotels and motels was meant to be a “very temporary solution,” but has turned into families staying an average of six to eight months.

“It just doesn’t make financial sense,” said Sheaff.

Instead, the state has been offering the homeless families $4,000 to find permanent affordable housing and has had success, said Sheaff.

He said that money is meant to help with initial rental and moving costs.

Sheaff said the governor and his administration feel that the incentives and programs are working and that’s where the state government should put its efforts.

“It’s much better that these families find stable, secure housing than live in one room in a motel,” said Gornstein. “They’re cramped in these rooms and that’s not good.”

Sheaff said since the governor and his administration have implemented the prevention programs, the number of homeless families in hotels and motels across the state has dropped by 20 percent.

“We expect to continue to see decreases,” said Sheaff.

Sheaff said it costs taxpayers about $80 per night per family to stay in a hotel or motel and the state also gives families a stipend for food, because meals have to be eaten out or they have to order take-out.

Next: Motel life and beyond

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