by Laticia Walker-Simpson
Homelessness in Greater Boston was rising even before the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2008 to 2018, the region experienced a 26.7% increase in homeless families and a 42.5% increase in homeless individuals. As rents skyrocketed and the shortage of affordable housing worsened, the state’s Emergency Assistance (“EA”) shelter program has strained to meet the need of the growing number of eligible households. The public health emergency has laid bare the structural problems with the state’s housing safety net program all too familiar to those working directly with the vulnerable population.
To meet the statutory mandate to provide Shelter to impoverished households, the Commonwealth must substantially increase funding for the EA program, implement measures to create more housing affordable for extremely low income residents, and adopt initiatives to address the displacement crisis, such as right to counsel in eviction cases and rent control.
“Right to Shelter”
In 1983, Massachusetts enacted a “Right to Shelter” law, Chapter 450 of the Acts of 1983, and established the state’s first publicly-funded homeless Shelter for families while they search for more stable housing. Although referred to as a “right to Shelter” jurisdiction, the Commonwealth imposes strict threshold eligibility requirements for applicants to be eligible for EA Shelter: families must be Massachusetts residents; at least one person must have qualifying immigration status; the family must have a qualifying child under age 21, and the overall household income must be at or below 115% of the federal poverty level.
Additionally, the family’s homelessness must have been caused by one of four qualifying reasons: (1) domestic violence; (2) fire, flood, or natural disaster not caused by a household member; (3) a health and safety risk that is likely to result in harm; or, (4) eviction due to certain circumstances that are generally beyond the control of the tenant household, such as medical situations.
A household will be barred from EA Shelter for a variety of reasons, including “intentionally reducing” income to become eligible for benefits (i.e., EA shelter or a housing subsidy); receiving EA Shelter benefits in the last year; abandoning public or subsidized housing without good cause; or being evicted due to criminal activity, destruction of property, or non-payment of rent for public/subsidized housing.
Once admitted to an EA Shelter, the household must meet certain mandatory participation requirements, such as saving 30% of their income, spending 20 hours per week in housing search, job search, or in education or training programs like financial literacy classes. Participants are also required to complete chores in the Shelter, including cleaning the facilities’ kitchens and bathrooms.
A Perverse Cycle
The Commonwealth’s shortage of affordable housing for low and extremely low income families is driving the need for EA Shelter. At least three in ten low-income people in Massachusetts are either homeless or must pay over half of their income in rent.
Since 2013, the average length of stay in EA Shelters across the state is 267 days. Only 12% of families exit the EA program within one month, 28% exit within three months, and 27% stay for more than a year and up to 5.6 years. Compared to an average of 247 days in 2008, in 2013 homeless families spent an average of 300 days in EA Shelters. The duration has been about 150 days longer in the Boston and Central regions than in the Southern and Western regions. This disparity is not surprising given the higher cost of housing in Boston where, for example, the rent for a two-bedroom leapt from $1,237 in 2010 to $1,758 in 2019.
With the lengthening duration of stay in EA Shelters due to lack of permanent affordable alternatives, more families are placed farther away from their home communities and face limited transportation options to their original places of employment, child care, medical care, education, and important networks of support. And case workers assigned to each EA family face increased caseloads, reducing the time they can spend assisting each family with housing search and accessing other resources necessary to transition out of homelessness.
The budget for the EA program has not kept pace with the expanded need for EA Shelter and increased cost of temporary EA housing. In fiscal year 2013, 39,436 homeless families were served by the EA budget of roughly $156.5M (adjusted for inflation). In fiscal year 2019, 43,392 families were served by the allocated EA budget of roughly $179.8M (exclusive of any supplemental budget).
To meet the increased demand, the EA program has placed many families in inexpensive private apartments. These private market EA placements have resulted in the unintended, albeit foreseeable, consequence of further shrinking the supply of “naturally occurring affordable housing” (“NOAH”) available as permanent housing options, including for EA participants. That is, by competing in the private rental market for EA temporary placements, the state’s efforts have had the perverse effect of further decreasing the supply of NOAHs available to low-income families, thereby pushing more vulnerable households into homelessness, and exacerbating the supply barriers to permanent housing for EA participants, thereby extending their time until exit from the EA program. It is a pernicious and inefficient cycle.
The related trends of longer EA stays and shrinking permanent affordable options has transformed the EA program from its original purpose as a short-term measure to help families get on their feet into a long-term housing placement system for those with limited prospects for transitioning to stable, affordable housing. This dynamic is unsustainable at current levels of EA appropriations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also underscored the public health costs of a system operating beyond capacity. EA Shelters are primarily comprised of congregate housing, where each family has a private room but shares a kitchen, bathroom, and living space with other families. Congregate physical facilities make social distancing impossible and contributes to the spread of the virus. The reduction in on-site staffing due to the public health emergency also means cleaning and maintenance also has come under increased strain.
Creativity and determination are necessary, but not sufficient, to disrupt the current inefficient patterns and cycles in the operation of the EA Shelter system. A substantial increase in EA Shelter appropriations will also be necessary, along with expansion of staff trained to develop resources, capacity, and resilience within homeless families, and more systemic efforts to preserve NOAHs as permanent affordable housing options.
The most effective, preventative response to the homelessness crisis would be a form of rent control. A more immediately needed response in the face of the tsunami of evictions expected at the end of the temporary eviction and foreclosure moratorium, Chapter 65 of the Acts of 2020, is a Right to Counsel legislation that would reduce the number of low-income residents who are evicted and need EA shelter by providing attorneys to low-income tenants, the majority of whom presently go unrepresented.
The pandemic has exposed the need for systemic reform for the EA program to operate effectively to mitigate the traumatic human, medical, and social costs associated with homelessness and to transform the “Right to Shelter” from a paper promise into a sustainable reality for our Commonwealth’s neediest families.
Laticia Walker-Simpson is a Staff Attorney focusing on EA Family Shelter in the Housing Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services. She co-chairs the Mentor project at GBLS and is part of the Massachusetts Right to Counsel Coalition. She is an avid baker.