Homeless families face strict new rules

*If you are poor, screw you, I guess.  HOPE AND CHANGE :)*

Less than two years after vowing to end homelessness in Massachusetts, the Patrick administration has proposed new regulations that it acknowledges could force hundreds of homeless families back on the street.

The regulations, scheduled to take effect April 1, would deny shelter to families who in the last three years had been evicted from or had abandoned public or subsidized housing without good cause, and to those who fail to meet a new 30-hour per week work requirement and save 30 percent of their income.

They also would reduce from six months to three months the period families can remain in shelters after their incomes rise above state limits; force out families absent from shelters for at least two consecutive nights as well as those who reject one offer of housing without good reason; and deny benefits for families whose members have outstanding default or arrest warrants as well as those whose only child is between ages 18 and 21, unless the child has a disability or is in high school.

Advocates for the homeless decried the proposal, which comes at a time when more homeless families are seeking beds in state shelters and remaining there longer. This month, the state is providing shelter for a record of nearly 2,700 families – one-quarter of them cramming for weeks at a time in expensive, often unsuitable motel rooms.

“This is not the time to change the safety net,” said Robyn Frost, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. “The number of people in need of shelter is like nothing we’ve ever seen. There’s never been such a desperate need for housing, and these changes could be devastating. They couldn’t come at a worse time.”

Julia E. Kehoe, the commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance, which oversees state shelters, said the system is “overburdened” and must change to provide services more equitably.

“It is certainly not our intent to be punitive, and we understand the difficulties families are facing,” Kehoe said. “But we are responsible for transforming the system, and particularly at a challenging time, it is absolutely critical that all stake holders need to work together to make sure that families have the greatest chance of moving out of shelter and poverty.”

While hundreds of families will likely lose their shelter beds, she said the changes would open space for qualifying families, many of whom the state is now paying an average of $85 a night to stay in motels. Last week, more than 630 families, including about 1,000 children, were staying at motels, waiting an average 22 days for a spot at the state’s 59 shelters.

By reducing those eligible for shelter, Kehoe said the new regulations would save the state $520,000 this fiscal year and more than $11 million in fiscal 2010. “Given our limited resources, we wanted to encourage people to find housing or stay where they are, rather than encouraging them to come into the system,” she said.

But those who work with the state’s neediest residents said the new “harsh restrictions” will only make it harder for the homeless to find a way out of poverty.

They said many of the regulations are open to interpretation and risk being applied unfairly if a shelter director doesn’t consider an explanation reasonable. Other regulations, such as the work and income requirements, would replace individual plans with uniform policies that might not take into account a family’s unique challenges. And they worried that many of the families’ older children – who are eligible to stay in state shelters until age 21 – will end up alone in often more dangerous shelters for individual adults.

Tom Lorello, executive director of Heading Home, which houses about 110 families in shelters and apartments throughout the Boston area, said many of the new regulations “put the blame in the wrong place.

“I don’t understand the idea of excluding people in need from shelters,” he said. “There has to be flexibility in a system like this. For example, some people can’t save their income because they have debts to pay. We shouldn’t be putting any unnecessary strains on already strained families.”

But Kehoe insisted the regulations will be applied fairly and noted they provide exceptions for families trying to pay down their debt, for those who hold jobs that might make them reluctant to accept a housing opportunity too far away, and for others who can’t find affordable housing after their income rises above welfare limits

She and other state officials said the regulations are part of the administration’s effort to overhaul the shelter system by more quickly moving the homeless into more permanent housing. In 2007, state officials moved the last homeless family out of a motel and heralded it as part of their new strategy to help all of the state’s homeless find permanent housing.

As part of that plan, the state recently merged the welfare agency’s emergency shelter programs with housing programs run by the Department of Housing and Community Development and is now planning eight regional networks to better coordinate homeless services and housing.

And this month, the state revised the way it pays shelters, holding back thousands of dollars in payments until homeless families are housed. The state now withholds its final payments for a year after the family leaves the system, as part of an incentive for shelters to extend their services to help keep the families housed.

“We know the severity of the problem, and we’re trying to provide a comprehensive approach,” said Bob Pulster, executive director of the state’s Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness.

He and others said they expect to receive millions of dollars from the federal stimulus package, which they hope will ease the state’s growing burden.

But they said federal money won’t stop the new regulations from taking effect – and the imminent changes have Grace Monteiro worried.

The 28-year-old mother of a toddler has been in and out of shelters and apartments for several years. In the fall of 2007, six months after landing a $15-an-hour job as an administrative assistant, she was forced to move out of a shelter because she exceeded the income requirements, which is now an income of $1,578 a month for a family of two.

So she moved into an expensive studio apartment – she couldn’t find affordable housing in time – but she had trouble balancing the rent with her other expenses. Within a few months, Monteiro lost her job and she and her son moved into a state-subsidized motel room and then back into the shelter system.

She says three months isn’t long enough for many families to find affordable apartments, which are increasingly scarce. As a result, she thinks the new regulations will just encourage more parents to avoid working.

“It’s a catch-22,” she said. “I want to get a job, but I’m afraid to get a job. I don’t want to repeat what happened last time. Because if I don’t have housing after three months, then what? This just makes it harder to do the right thing.”



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