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ABCD Urges Legislatures to Help Homeless Families with Safer Access to Emergency Shelters

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Thursday Sep 14, 2017

Submitted by ABCD

Action for Boston Community Development advocates for low-income residents and families struggling to overcome poverty. With our mission to empower those that are disadvantaged, ABCD joins the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and State Rep. Marjorie Decker in efforts to remove the requirement that families spend a night in conditions unfit for human habitation to qualify for emergency shelter in Massachusetts.

Under the state's regulation for emergency shelter for families with children (and for pregnant women with no other children), families qualify for state-funded shelter if they are homeless: (1) because they are fleeing domestic abuse; (2) because of a fire, flood or natural disaster; (3) because of a no-fault eviction; or (4) because they are in a housing situation not fit for human habitation. Although living in a housing situation not fit for human habitation is not the only way a family can demonstrate eligibility for emergency shelter, those administering the state's emergency shelter program often treat it as such and require homeless families to spend a night in a setting deemed dangerous or uninhabitable - e.g., under a bridge, in a car, on the street, at a bus station, a campground, or in an emergency room reception area.

This requirement is inhumane because it places those who are already vulnerable at a risk of danger, illness, or worse. The burden of proof to show dire need for shelter is unfairly placed on the homeless individual and family. This requirement is degrading and often deters those in need from seeking the best solutions out of their dismal situation.

"Massachusetts has obligations to its residents. To force a homeless family to stay in a place that is not safe or unfit is suppression and stops those eligible for shelter from getting a foot onto the right path," said John Drew, President/CEO of ABCD. "This policy shuts the door on the poor and destitute until they go away. Homeless families are resorting to sleeping in cars and hospitals as those in power want to shut down hotel shelters to decrease the numbers of those actually in need."

"We deal with poverty and homelessness and it's getting worse. There are more families being displaced, more individuals turning to opioids, drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. We should not be systematically obstructing access to shelter. More humane solutions are needed," Drew said.

Over 600 families were placed in shelters this past fiscal year, but had to prove they slept in an unsafe place first. From the current policy's implementation in late 2012 until June 2017, over 2,600 families with children have stayed in an uninhabitable or dangerous place prior to obtaining access to an emergency assistance shelter, according to the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development.

As the cost of living continues to escalate, more families struggle to rent or sustain shelter within their financial means. Simply put - there are not enough options for affordable housing. Turnover rates on scattered sites are low. The state must provide more options for temporary shelter as homeless families are assessed for housing. There must be more advocates and navigators to point families in need towards the right direction. There must be more construction to create affordable housing.

"Until more solutions are made available and put into action, we urge legislation to remove the state requirement that the homeless have to spend a night somewhere dangerous or uninhabitable in order to qualify for emergency shelter. It's demeaning, and we should have better standards for Massachusetts residents no matter if they are poor or down and out. Let's help those in need to keep their dignity so they can rise out of poverty," said Drew.

ABCD supports legislation to direct the Department of Housing and Community Development to provide emergency shelter to those who are in need without requiring them to prove they have stayed in a place unfit for human habitation.

"We are grateful for ABCD's partnership in working to expose the consequences of the failed state policy of requiring many families experiencing homelessness to first stay in places not meant for human habitation before becoming eligible for Emergency Assistance family shelter," said Kelly Turley, associate director of The Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. "We are committed standing up with families, advocates, providers, and other people of conscience to do all we can to reverse this policy, while also working to expand access to homelessness prevention resources and long-term affordable housing. We call on the Legislature and the Baker Administration to take swift action to undo this policy and uphold human dignity."

Help protect our families in need. Children especially should not have to experience the dangers of homelessness by sleeping in unsafe places.