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Homeless In Hotels

Greenfield hotel room limbo for homeless

State now putting money into apartments

GREENFIELD — Felisha Lackey, her fiance, and her four young children lived out of a van in Athol for three weeks before the state stepped in and found the homeless family a couple of rooms in a local hotel.

The couple had been living in Athol with four children under the age of 11 when Lackey’s sister convinced them to move south to Florida.

“It didn’t work,” said Lackey, 27. “We couldn’t find work or an affordable place to live, so we had to come back home soon after we got there. We started the trip back from Florida with $400 in our pocket and by the time we got home, we had $80.”

Lackey said she and her family stayed with friends because they couldn’t afford to get an apartment, but eventually they ended up in the van.

“We couldn’t live like that, so I went to a lady I knew and she worked with some social services and got us into the Days Inn,” said Lackey.

She, her fiance, and the four children, now ages 11, 3, 2 and 1, moved into two rooms in the Days Inn in Greenfield in September 2011 and just moved out and into an apartment in Greenfield the week before Christmas.

They were in the hotel as part of the state’s HomeBASE program, which gives families who have become homeless through no fault of their own, a chance to find permanent affordable housing while living in a hotel if there is no room in traditional shelters, all at taxpayer expense.

That program is now being phased out by the state and won’t exist after June 30, 2014.

Instead, the state will put its efforts into funding its homeless prevention programs, which the undersecretary for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development has said makes more sense and will cost less in the end. State officials now concede that putting up the homeless families for months on end in motels is bad for taxpayers and the families involved.

Undersecretary Aaron Gornstein has said there will be other programs to help the homeless or those on the verge of homelessness.

Lackey said she is forever grateful for the HomeBASE program, but said there are some flaws.

“It was really tough living out of a couple of hotel rooms for 15 months with four kids,” said Lackey.

She said her fiance lived in one room with two of them and she lived in another room with the other two.

“My fiance and I never fought so much,” she said. “It was very frustrating and stressful.”

Lackey said she would get calls from the front desk asking her to quiet and calm her children because they were disturbing the paying guests. She said she was always worried that her children would make too much noise and they’d be asked to leave.

“We cooked meals in a microwave for more than a year,” she said. “Thank God the Days Inn had a coin-operated washer and dryer, but even then, we were always competing with the other families to use them.”

“Living in a hotel room also really messes up your daily routine,” she said. “It’s something I’ll always remember.”

Lackey said her 11-year-old son had the toughest time.

“He knew what it was like to live in our own place and be able to go outside and play baseball or basketball in the yard,” she said. “The little ones didn’t, so caring for them was harder on us.”

She said the school bus would pick up her oldest at the hotel in the morning and drop him back off there in the afternoon.

“The other kids on the bus would ask him about living in a hotel,” she said. “One of the rules was that he had to be supervised at all times, so he couldn’t go out and play very often. We just didn’t have those types of luxuries for over a year.”

Lackey said her children got away with things they never would have in an apartment.

“I felt bad for them or was afraid to get them upset because I didn’t want them to disturb anyone else, so I just let them do things I wouldn’t normally let them do,” she said.

Charity Day, housing, consumer and education director for the Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority, said the agency worked with Lackey and her family to get them into and out of the Days Inn.

“We helped them finally find safe, affordable housing,” said Day. “They were eligible for the $4,000 from the HomeBASE program and another voucher because her fiance is disabled.”

HomeBASE gives families $4,000 to help get them out of hotels and pay initial rental costs.

Day said that money allowed the couple to pay first-month and last-month rent and a security deposit, as well as buy some furnishings.

“They didn’t have anything because they had been living out of a van,” said Day, who said most of the families living in Greenfield hotels are from throughout Franklin County and from Athol.

“They’re our neighbors,” she said. “They grew up here. It’s their home. We know them.”

Day said each family has come to the HomeBASE program with different issues, but they all have one thing in common: homelessness.

“They are either homeless or on the verge of being,” she said.

Day said a number of local social services agencies work with the homeless families to make things a little better while they are going through transition.

“We sent 15 kids, including Felisha’s oldest son, to camp last summer,” said Day. “That got them out of the hotel for a while each day.”

The numbers

The state has been placing homeless families like Lackey’s in hotel rooms on a temporary basis since the 1980s, but there has been a steady, overwhelming surge since 2007, said Gornstein.

Some families have lived in one room for a year, while the average family has spent about three to six months in a hotel before finding affordable housing. Some of the luckier families have only had to stay in hotel rooms for several weeks.

According to the state, there are now 12 families staying at the Days Inn and 5 staying at the Quality Inn on the Mohawk Trail.

At one point last summer there were 37 families living in the two Greenfield hotels. That number decreased to 21 in November and then dropped again, which is exactly what the state said it wants to see.

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

Sheaff said the number of families living in western Massachusetts hotels has dropped 20 percent since last summer.

While living in one or two rooms has put a strain on families in Greenfield and across the state, it has also done the same to hotels.

The hotels

Rahul Brahmbhatt , front desk manager at the Days Inn, said the program has worked well, but the hotel has had a few minor problems.

“Some people follow the rules and some don’t,” said Brahmbhatt. “But that’s true with other guests, too. There are always people who are respectful and people who aren’t.”

Brahmbhatt said the Days Inn has contracted with the state to take in homeless families.

The state pays $3,000 a month for a family to stay in a hotel or motel. That’s a little less than it costs to keep a family in one of the state-run shelters for a month, said Sheaff.

Brahmbhatt said Days Inn has strict rules that the homeless families must adhere to and the state backs the hotel up.

“The state has told us it will come in and remove a family if they don’t follow the rules,” said Brahmbhatt, who said that hasn’t happened at Days Inn.

He said families have a curfew. They can move around in the hallways from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but must be quiet and in for the night the other 12 hours.

Brahmbhatt said Days Inn does not have a pool or play area, so, he understands, it is somewhat tough on the children. He said most of the children who have stayed there with their families have been young, but there have been some teens, who must be supervised by parents.

“The living arrangements aren’t ideal, but most people are happy and appreciate that they have a roof over their heads,” he said.

Brahmbhatt said Days Inn has only lost a couple of paying guests over the situation. He said he isn’t sure why, but believes it was probably because of what they thought might happen. For instance, he said they might have thought children would be running through the hallways at all hours of the day and night.

“That’s not the way it is at all,” he said.

Brahmbhatt said the hotel has tried to place all of the homeless families on one floor in one wing. He said the hotel isn’t trying to segregate them, but wants to give them and other guests some privacy.

He said some of the families that have stayed at Days Inn were or are there because of domestic violence issues, which means they need privacy and the confidentiality some might need.

Brahmbhatt said most of the families that have stayed at the Greenfield hotel haven’t stayed long, though some have stayed for several months and a few have stayed as long as Lackey and her family.

“This can all be so difficult,” he said. “There is no place to cook, to run, to play, or for parents to get a break. Just imagine it.”

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