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Ending Family Homelessness in Massachusetts

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In Massachusetts, nearly 5,000 families, including 10,000 children, experience homelessness annually. Having such a large number of homeless families, many of whom remain homeless for six months or longer, is unacceptable in a state that devotes considerable resources to the problem. It is well documented that homelessness exacts a heavy toll on children and places severe strain on health, educational outcomes and family composition.

Most families in Massachusetts facing homelessness receive assistance through the Emergency Assistance (EA) program, which serves an important function for families facing housing crises. Nonetheless, in relying primarily on the provision of emergency shelter, the current EA system has become increasingly expensive to support and has proven itself to be ineffective at eliminating homelessness. No child in the Commonwealth should be without a safe, and decent place to call home. Yet, under the current EA system, more and more families facing a housing crisis find themselves staying for extended periods of times in less than ideal emergency shelters and motels instead of quickly securing a more stable and permanent housing arrangement. New approaches to helping families at risk of or experiencing homelessness and a transformation of existing EA policies are urgently needed if Massachusetts hopes to eliminate family homelessness while making efficient use of resources.

The Commonwealth has a strong track record of caring for the health and well-being of its citizens. In 2006, Massachusetts passed innovative health reform legislation, which relied on cooperation between the public and private sectors to extend health coverage to tens of thousands of persons. This landmark reform has set Massachusetts apart from the rest of the nation and has served as a model for current Federal health reform legislation. In transforming the EA program, Massachusetts again has an opportunity to undertake a reform that will greatly benefit some of its most vulnerable residents. If reform is done carefully and correctly, the state can feasibly expect to make real and sustained progress towards ending family homelessness.

This paper, commissioned by the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation, aims to explore the current opportunity for policy reform of the EA system in Massachusetts. It will first review recent actions by the state that have provided a context for systems change. It will then describe some of the challenges posed by the current system, particularly the lack of cost containment, and the resulting fact that significant public resources are spent supporting long-term stays in shelters and motels, which are not good for families or children. After an exploration of funding and resource issues that are germane to the discussion of EA policy reform, the paper will conclude by establishing the foundation for changing the current system into one that would be outcome oriented, driven by the objective of housing stabilization and serve families in a more timely, effective and efficient manner.

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Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

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