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Family Homelessness

Homelessness among families with children is at a crisis level in Massachusetts. The number of homeless families is at an all-time high with over 4,000 families including approximately 8,000 children, currently living in shelter. More children are becoming homeless every day. On average, approximately 240 homeless families with children apply for emergency shelter each week.

The State’s Emergency Assistance (EA) program, administered by the MA Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) provides shelter and other services exclusively to homeless families with children and pregnant women with incomes under 115% of the federal poverty level. For many years, the EA program provided a strong emergency shelter safety net for such families.   However, in the fall of 2012, the State implemented new regulations severely restricting access to EA shelter for homeless families with children. These restrictions have had devastating consequences for homeless families, who are being denied access to emergency shelter, are not being provided with affordable housing (or any housing) options, and are left with no safe place to stay. 

MLRI has been the statewide leader and expert in EA shelter, and since the new EA rules were put in place, we have successfully challenged some of the most draconian regulatory changes aimed at unlawfully denying shelter to homeless families. Although MLRI typically does not provide individual direct representation, we have begun representing many homeless families to inform our systemic advocacy.  In addition, our Family Homelessness attorneys train advocates on complex and changing EA policies and provide on-going assistance and support to the legal service field attorneys and to non-legal services advocates (particularly hospitals, community health care centers and social service providers).

MLRI’s Family Homelessness advocacy is multi-pronged and includes: 1) direct representation of homeless families denied access to or threatened with termination from emergency shelter; 2) administrative advocacy to modify or ameliorate policies and frontline practices that wrongly deny access to shelter or wrongfully terminate families in shelter; 3) litigation and legislative advocacy to improve regulations and advance programs that create permanent housing solutions for homeless families; 4) improving the service delivery system for homeless families through an integrated systems approach.  Some of our current work includes:

Reducing Barriers to EA Shelter Access:

Among other existing eligibility requirements and restrictions, under the new regulations many families now have to first stay in “a place not meant for human habitation” in order to be eligible for shelter. These regulatory changes have had devastating consequences for countless homeless families who are being denied access to emergency shelter, but not being provided any affordable housing--or any housing--options, and thus are left with no safe place to stay.  This fiscal year, over 400 homeless children and their families had to sleep in bus stations, cars, emergency rooms, and other "places not meant for human habitation" before they could be approved for emergency shelter.  A recent New England Public News Service article draws attention to the crisis.  Furthermore, DHCD routinely turns away families who are eligible for EA shelter (even under the new regulations) but who do not have the various required forms and verifications on hand.  MLRI has been working with the agency to address this issue because it violates state law, which requires families to be presumptively placed for up to 30 days and provided with assistance in obtaining any necessary third-party verifications.

MLRI will continue its efforts to reform regulations that require families with children to stay in unsafe places before they can access shelter. We are conducting ongoing administrative advocacy and engaging partners in the medical and educational communities, as well as other social service allies, to advocate that families who are within 24 hours of staying in a place not meant for human habitation be eligible for EA shelter.

Reducing/Eliminating Unwarranted Shelter Terminations:

Along with restricting access to EA shelter, DHCD is now aggressively terminating families from the shelter system, often for minor, de minimis alleged rules violations. This problem has been particularly acute for families placed in motels, who are subject to more onerous and unreasonable rules and termination standards. MLRI recently filed class action litigation Hayes v. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), Civil Action 12-108 (W. Mass. Housing Court) challenging unequal and unfair rules and noncompliance and termination standards for families in motels. We are providing representation for up to 2,000 individual class members/families with regard to challenging noncompliance and termination actions, asserting rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and asserting rights to equal access for those with limited English proficiency.  

Addressing Agency ADA and LEP Non-Compliance for Families in the EA Shelter System:  

MLRI is engaged in on-going administrative advocacy with DHCD to address policies and procedures that do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and with laws that mandate equal access for families with Limited English Proficiency (LEP).  We are addressing non-compliance using a two-pronged approach of agency negotiation and individual (and/or systemic) litigation, as necessary.  

Advocating for Permanent Housing Resources for Homeless Families:

Although the EA shelter system is a critical safety net for homeless families, we recognize that shelter is not the answer to addressing the family homelessness crisis and that more affordable housing resources are necessary.  Through legislative advocacy, we are advocating for an increase in permanent affordable housing resources so that families with children can be housed rather than sheltered.  For example, in the FY15 state budget, we are advocating for increased funding for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) and for state public housing. We are also advocating for additional supports and resources for particularly vulnerable subsets of homeless families with children (e.g., those that include children with disabilities).   We are working with DHCD, local housing authorities and the legislature to reform priorities for state-funded housing to provide a priority to families in unsafe “doubled-up” housing situations. 

Providing Integrated Support to Homeless Families:

Homeless families face significant instability and trauma. Many homeless parents are domestic violence survivors; others are coping with mental health challenges (that may have led to homelessness and/or that have developed as a result of the stresses of homelessness); many homeless parents, either through shame or through alienation, have lost support networks of family and friends; many families who end up in motels are often placed very far from their home base (away from their communities, families, jobs, health care providers, etc.). It is well documented that homelessness places the physical and mental health of children at particularly great risk. For example, homeless children have higher rates of asthma, obesity and nutritional deficiency, and are more likely to experience acute and chronic illness and suffer from mental health and behavioral problems.  (And these already deleterious outcomes are exacerbated in situations where families are constantly “couch surfing,” moving place to place in cramped living conditions, or where they are forced to stay in “places not meant for human habitation” prior to being allowed access to shelter.)  

MLRI works to identify and address the numerous issues facing homeless families through an integrated systems approach, combining our legal representation with other support, whenever possible, throughout the placement process.   We often refer homeless families in EA shelter to MLRI's Benefits staff for  assistance in securing SNAP and cash assistance. We provide advocacy to ensure children are enrolled in and transported to school under the McKinney-Vento Act. We connect families with housing search services, community-based resources, and health care centers which can provide the additional support needed tolead families toward stability. 

For more information about the family homelessness crisis in Massachusetts, please read MLRI's report "Out in the Cold: Homeless Children in Crisis in Massachusetts," issued in April 2013 and watch "Give them Shelter," a compelling video by MLRI about the plight of homeless children and families denied shelter in Massachusetts.

MLRI's Family Homelessness advocacy through a medical-legal-education partnership is generously supported by funding from Boston Children's Hospital.