By Council President Leo Robinson
The problem of homelessness in Massachusetts continues to be the number one problem among individuals and families who struggle with poverty. Homelessness is the result of families and individuals unable to meet the growing demand of the housing market. The escalation in rents, fueled by the onset in local economic development, which caters to those who can afford market rent, has created a vacuum in the system that leads to homelessness. The “affordable” housing models work only for those who earn above 50% to 80% of the median income, while the majority of our poor who have income closer to 20% of median income are excluded. With limited public housing and rent subsidies, families are constantly faced with the problem of displacement and locating housing that meets their restricted family income. Not all individuals and families are capable of working. Many people have disabilities that prevent them from gainful employment. It is well known that the absence of stable, secure and sanitary housing leads to overcrowding, illness, poor nutrition, and dependence on the system, failure to achieve education goals, substance use and breakup of the family unit.
The Homebase Program, although valuable for those who are eligible, unfortunately does not meet the needs of those ineligible, which comprises a significant percent of those who experience homelessness and in particular defined as “chronically homeless”. Single adults and those with children who are not eligible for Emergency Assistance are not eligible for Homebase. The RAFT Program, although valuable, is available only after the Court has ordered an Execution for Possession. Therefore, we in the Commonwealth continue to experience homelessness among a substantial segment of the population, thus increasing the need to expand an already overburdened shelter system.
Fortunately, there is a solution that will remedy the majority of homelessness cases not addressed through existing programs. We know that homelessness is preventable in the vast majority of cases when there is early, casework intervention that utilizes resources designed to address the acute cause. The causes that lead to displacement must also be understood and the extent of the condition measured. When we identify the conditions that cause homelessness and initiate early intervention services, we avert displacement and stop the influx of most families into the shelter system. The cost to achieve this goal is far less than the cost to shelter families in hotels and motels. There will almost surely be a need to maintain a shelter system for those cases that are complex, but we can eliminate the use of hotels and minimize the use of shelters through aggressive intervention at an early stage. It should be noted that the decrease seen recently in the number of families placed in hotels, is a result of an increase in shelter beds and restrictive criteria for those who apply and are not eligible for Emergency Assistance.
An effective way to determine the likelihood of housing displacement is found by examining the annual household income in relationship to the annual housing cost. This calculation determines those “at risk” of homelessness. It is reasonable to define “at risk” as those households that expend in excess of 50% of their annual income on housing costs. “If your income is $500,000 a year, you can pay 40 percent and still have money left,” says Frank Nothaft, the chief economist at Freddie Mac. “But if your income is $20,000 a year, it will be hard to make ends meet if you’re paying 30 percent of your income on rent.” In considering this opinion and the demographics in Massachusetts, it is prudent to use the 50% marker to determine risk status.
At a recently conducted “at risk” housing survey conducted by Community Action Programs Inter-City, Inc. (CAPIC), which serves the Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop area, 51.1% or 261 respondents of 510 total respondents claim to spend more than 50% of their annual income on rent. More alarming is the revelation that 59% or 301 respondents are not able to pay their rent every month. 58% of the respondents fear they will be evicted due to non-payment, whereas only .09% has been homeless within the past two years! This result shows that those who are most “at risk” of displacement are not among the chronically homeless. It further demonstrates that there is a trend developing among those considered low wage earners that displacement is imminent and early intervention is indicated.
The way to avert displacement from housing involves developing intensive casework solutions before the family/individual is in crisis. Short-term financial resources are needed in order to prevent most displacements, combined with a concentrated effort to then stabilize the tenancy. Identify families and individuals who are “at risk” of being displaced from housing and assist them with early intervention services including, counseling, mediation, job assessment and short-term financial assistance. Provide long-term stabilization assistance to ensure on going tenancy.
Homelessness in Massachusetts can be prevented in the majority of cases through early identification of causes and aggressive intervention. Displacement from housing is preventable when the cause is identified and addressed at an early stage. Community Action Agencies have the mechanism in place to identify “at risk” households before displacement becomes imminent. The statewide network of Community Action Agencies, possess the resources to offer comprehensive services that attack the problems that cause homelessness at the root cause. Implementation of a statewide Homelessness Prevention Program funded at $10 million annually would end the need to use hotels and decrease the shelter population. An appropriation of $5 million annually would enable the initiative to prevent 2,000 families from entering the shelter system, by a 50% decrease in incidence.
We see other local needs that include continued funding for Head Start, After School and Child Development Services for those who work; heating assistance for those on limited and fixed incomes; programs for those persons seeking treatment and recovery from substance use and better compensation for child care workers.
Community Action Programs Inter-City Inc., (CAPIC) is a private, non-profit corporation that was chartered in 1967 to identify and eradicate the root causes of poverty in Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop. CAPIC is designated by State and Federal Government as a Community Action Agency (CAA). The Agency provides services to over 15,000 area-wide residents, annually.