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Hotel homeless have moved on — some to hopeful future

  • Submitted Photo/Brianna GabryBrianna Gabry and her three daughters spent months living in this hotel room at the Days Inn in Greenfield during the summer of 2015.

  • Submitted Photo/Brianna GabryBrianna Gabry and her three daughters spent months living in this hotel room at the Days Inn in Greenfield during the summer of 2015.

  • Brianna Gabry’s three daughters, Jadis, Kylee and Lailah, show off rocks they collected outside the Days Inn in Greenfield. The family spent seven months living in one of the hotel’s small rooms after fleeing domestic violence in 2015. SUBMITTED PHOTO/BRIANNA GABRy

  • Brianna Gabry of Turners Falls is a Greenfield Community College Student. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 10/7/2016 11:21:34 PM
Modified: 10/7/2016 11:21:10 PM

GREENFIELD — He’d nearly killed her, and she knew she had to get out. But there was seemingly nowhere to go.

The state’s shelters were full when 28-year-old Brianna Gabry of Turners Falls fled an eight-year-long relationship marked by domestic violence and abuse in the spring of 2015. Instead, she and her three young daughters, Jadis, Kylee and Lailah, were placed in the only emergency shelter available: a small hotel room at the Days Inn on Colrain Road.

For the next seven months, Gabry and her daughters found themselves crammed into that one room — along with 60 to 80 homeless families who lived with little more than two beds, a microwave and a dresser in the Days Inn or the former Quality Inn on the Mohawk Trail since emergency assistance case loads began spiking about four years ago.

But Gov. Charlie Baker vowed to end the practice during his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, and his administration appears to be well on its way to that goal: there were about 1,500 families living in taxpayer-funded motel rooms statewide in January 2015, but as of Sept. 29, the most recent day reported, there were 268 left, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees the program.

Today, none of those families are in Greenfield’s hotels, or in any western Massachusetts hotels, for that matter, according to a DHCD spokeswoman who declined to be named.

A spokeswoman for ServiceNet, which handles the families’ cases locally, said there were more than 100 homeless families living in the hotels in Greenfield two years ago. About a third of them were from Franklin County, while two-thirds came from elsewhere in Massachusetts. In mid-September, the final family left the Days Inn, according to Fran Lemay, the director of ServiceNet’s Greenfield Family Inn shelter on Federal Street.

Employees from ServiceNet and the Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority worked directly with the families to help them move to more stable housing, Lemay said. Many of those families have moved on to permanent housing or live in ServiceNet-owned apartments or co-housing units, he said.

Robyn Frost, the executive director of the Boston-based Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said much of the drop can be attributed to the administration’s expansion of the state’s shelter system and investment in the HomeBASE program, started under the Patrick administration, which gives families up to $8,000 to help overcome their housing barriers.

DHCD officials said the department has been working to address family homelessness and end the use of hotels “through a variety of strategies.”

Gabry was herself able to leave the hotel for low-income housing in Turners Falls in November 2015, and she’s recently qualified for federal Section 8 housing vouchers that will help her buy a home, after waiting more than five years. She’s now studying nursing at Greenfield Community College.

“It’s about ‘How can we keep this housing?’” Gabry said.  “‘How can we not end up in this situation again?”

“It stabilizes life for children”

Most local officials who had direct contact with the families agree that the worst part of their transient, hotel-based lifestyle was its effect on the children who lived in them.

Melodie Goodwin, the principal at Newton School on Shelburne Road, saw that firsthand, every day. Newton’s nearness to the hotels meant most of the children ended up enrolling there.

Goodwin said providing a solid educational experience for the hotel children was both challenging and frusturating. A teacher could work hard with a student to bring them up to par with their classmates and establish a healthy relationship with them, only to have them disappear the next day when their family moved to another town or shelter.

“It was hard to help a child, and then have them gone,” Goodwin said. “Not even being able to say ‘Goodbye,’ was the hardest thing for all of us, not knowing if we’d made an impact with such a quick turnaround.”

Finding permanent housing for the hotel homeless, Mayor William Martin has said, will stabilize both the children’s lives and the town’s finances. Having those students register as permanent residents makes reporting enrollment numbers to the state — part of the formula that determines how much financial aid the town gets to help bolster its school budget — easier, and makes that aid more stable.

Most recently, an audit from 2015 showed that the town itself paid more than $300,000 — mostly in education expenses — each year to provide services to homeless families, according to Recorder archives.

“We (must) educate every student in town ...” he said. “We have fluid numbers (of homeless students) coming in and out of Greenfield and (associated costs) that we need to absorb, but don’t have the opportunity to reflect them in our reimbursement. We’re dealing with incorrect numbers, but real people.”

“No vacancy”

Frost, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless director, said despite the progress on the homeless hotels, homelessness and poverty are ongoing problems in Massachusetts. For many of the families who are currently homeless in the state, a permanent solution needs to include combating low housing vacancy rates and high rental costs in Massachusetts, she said.

Currently, about 4 percent of rental housing is vacant statewide, below the 6.3 percent national rate. The median monthly rental cost for an apartment in both Massachusetts, at $1,164, and Franklin County, at $1,021, exceed the national median of $995, according to federal census data.

Frost said recent changes in qualifications for receiving shelter from the state now requires families to be earning less than 115 percent of the federal poverty level and to fit into one of four categories: no-fault eviction, natural disaster, domestic violence or health and safety risks.

Frost said that means many of the families that may have previously ended up in the state shelters or hotels no longer qualify, and instead find themselves “doubling up” with friends or family and living a nomadic lifestyle between stays.

Since the early ’80s, Massachusetts has been the country’s only state with a “right-to-shelter” law guaranteeing emergency housing for qualifying families with children or women who are pregnant with their first child. As a last resort when the shelter system reaches capacity, the state turns to the motels, like those in Greenfield, to manage overflow. When the case-load uptick began in 2011, homeless families flowed into the town’s hotels from as far away as Springfield and Boston.

Data provided by DHCD shows the state spent more than $30 million over the last fiscal year on homeless hotels, $671,000 of which went to Greenfield hotels.

You can reach Tom Relihan at: 413-772-0261, ext. 264
On Twitter: @RecorderTom

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