A Snapshot of Families Experiencing Homelessness

Family homelessness has become an epidemic throughout the nation, with the population steadily rising since the recession. In Massachusetts, the only “right to shelter” state in the country, the state continues its efforts both sheltering families in emergency housing needs while preventing homelessness in the first place. These attempts have been met with varied opinions, including push back from human service and housing advocates.


On January 1, 2013, the MA Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) announced another reform to the Commonwealth’s family sheltering system: the state will phase out the use of emergency shelter motel/hotel program by June of 2014. With a myriad of assistance programs, and rising demand, what does this exactly mean for children and families experiencing homelessness?


National Picture
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH), 1.2 million American children, or one in 63 children, are homeless as of 2007. The average family experiencing homelessness is headed by a single mother and contains two young children.

As of May 2012, 2,824 families were housed in motels or hotels through the MA DHCD’s emergency assistance shelter program (DHCD, 2012). Families experiencing homeless are diverted to these spaces because DHCD’s temporary shelter beds are at capacity, with 1,736 families in shelter placements since May of 2012. What’s more, Home BASE, the state’s new subsidy program aimed at transitioning families to independent living, is at capacity. The wait list for the program has reached over 100,000 families and an approximate waiting period of nine years.

Here are some more facts about the challenges facing homeless families and children from the NCFH:

• More than half of all homeless mothers do not have a high school diploma.
• 29% of adults in homeless families are working.
• Homeless families have much higher rates of family separation than other low-income families.
• Over 92% of homeless mothers have experienced severe physical and/or sexual abuse during their lifetime. For 63%, this abuse was perpetrated by an intimate partner.

Children experiencing homelessness…
• Are sick four times more often than other children.
• Go hungry at twice the rate of other children.
• Have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems compared to non-homeless children.
• By age 12, 83% have been exposed to at least one serious violent event.
• Almost 25% have witnessed acts of violence within their families.
• Children experiencing homelessness are 4 times more likely to show delayed development.

Assistance to Homeless Families in Massachusetts
Massachusetts provides assistance to families experiencing homelessness through the following programs:

• The Massachusetts Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program, run by MA DHCD, helps pregnant women and families with children who are homeless by providing temporary emergency shelter and helping families find permanent housing.

• Massachusetts Shelters and Transitional Programs: Emergency shelters and transitional programs give temporary housing and support services to the homeless in Massachusetts. These shelters accommodate families with children, runaway teens and teen parents, women and children fleeing domestic violence, and single adult men and women without children. Staff provides a number of services that help residents transition to permanent housing and independent living. To be eligible for family shelter, Massachusetts families must contain one or more dependent children or pregnant women who are experiencing, or at-risk, of homelessness. Families must also seek shelter for specific reasons such as domestic violence, natural disaster, no-fault eviction or significant health and safety risks, and meet financial criteria.

• Home BASE is an alternative to shelter for Massachusetts homeless families. The program offers financial subsidies for families who are eligible for EA to pay rent, utility bills, security deposits, and other expenses of a market rate rental units for up to three years, allowing a family to stay in current housing or move to new housing instead of EA. The program has been overwhelmed by demand, as stated above.

• Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) is a homelessness prevention program that gives short-term financial assistance to low-income families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Similar to Home BASE, RAFT helps families who are behind on rent, mortgage payments, or utility bills. RAFT also helps families who have to move but do not have enough money to pay a security deposit, utility startup costs, or first/last month’s rent.

Recent Developments
Currently, the EA system is at capacity, with its 2,000 shelter beds occupied. This has left the state no choice but to utilize motels and hotels to house families, an option that is costly. On December 27, 2012, Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the MA DHCD, noted that housing families in motels/hotels costs the state an average of $3,000 per a month for every family, amounting to a total of $45 million over fiscal year 2012. What’s more, housing families in hotels/motel units for sometimes up to eight months is detrimental to child development, particularly given the young age of many homeless children who need space in order to meet key physical and developmental milestones. This is a fact Massachusetts has recognized. On January 1, 2013, the Boston Globe reported that the state will phase out the use of hotels/motels, which currently houses 1,700 families, by June 30, 2014.

Advocates argue that many families in need are not represented in the current EA population because they are excluded through strict eligibility criteria. Families must fall at or below the monthly income limited of $2,209 for a family of four and meet one of the four criteria discussed above – fleeing natural disaster, domestic violence, unfair eviction or significant unsafe conditions/health emergencies. In addition, families must provide proof that they are residents of the Commonwealth. Advocates say that this excludes families suffering from financial difficulty and leaves them with little options other than doubling up with families and friends or living on the streets and in cars.

Despite these arguments, it does not appear that eligibility for EA assistance will change. Undersecretary Gornstein noted that even with this criteria in place, no other state offers the level of assistance and resources to families compared to that provided through the state of Massachusetts, accounting for a huge portion of state spending every year. Gornstein also announced that the state will create 1,000 additional supportive housing units in light of the motel/hotel phase out.

Homelessness and housing security are complex issues often tied to intergenerational poverty and other social issues. There is no clear solution, although affordable housing, education, employment opportunities and adequate child care clearly all play a large role in helping families down a path of self-sufficiency. As the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and states across the nation continue to grapple with the complexity of addressing family homelessness, Wheelock College will provide support through the community service our students provide to human service and nonprofit based organized across the state. This task – and the task of addressing family homeless – directly aligns with Wheelock College’s mission to improve the lives of children and families everywhere, especially those in vulnerable situations such as homelessness. We encourage you to find out more about this social problem and particularly urge our students to consider field education placements that address the needs of this population.

Additional Resources
Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development – http://www.mass.gov/hed/economic/eohed/dhcd/
Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless – http://www.mahomeless.org/
Homes for Families – http://homesforfamilies.org/
National Center on Family Homelessness – http://www.air.org/center/national-center-family-homelessness
National Coalition to End Homelessness – http://www.naeh.org/