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New Shelter Rules Deemed Better, Still Lacking

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Last week, the state put into effect a final version of new regulations governing how homeless families qualify for emergency shelter. And while the new regulations are an improvement over earlier proposed rules, they still contain gaps that leave some families are great risk, say advocates for homeless people.

The new rules, effective on Dec. 7, have been under debate for months. (See “No Place to Live,” Oct. 18. 2012) This summer, the Legislature made several dramatic changes to the state’s homelessness policies as part of the fiscal 2013 budget. Some of the changes were welcomed by advocates—namely, millions in increased funding for rental-voucher and other programs designed to prevent struggling families from becoming homeless.

But critics decried other changes that make it harder for families who are already homeless to access emergency shelter. The rules guaranteed emergency shelter to families who met certain criteria, including those left homeless by fire or other disaster, those fleeing domestic violence, those who face eviction through no fault of their own, and those living in a situation that “exposes children to substantial health and safety risks.”

But those categories, critics said, left out too many families, including those at “imminent risk” of living in unsafe conditions. That meant, in essence, that a family would have to first land in an unsafe place—sleeping in a car or a bus station, for instance—before they qualified, Ruth Bourquin, an attorney with the Mass. Law Reform Institute, told the Advocate this fall.

Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary for the Mass. Dept. of Housing and Community Development, which oversees state shelter programs, denied such assertions. “If they’re in an emergency situation, they will get into shelter,” he told the Advocate. “You can qualify before you’re living in your car.” He also noted that the budget included an impressive $14 million in new funding for homelessness prevention programs, in keeping with the state’s “housing-first” approach, which emphasizes finding families permanent housing rather than temporary shelter.

While DHCD began implementing the new regulations last summer, the department held several hearings and solicited public input before releasing the final version late last month. In a memo analyzing the changes, Bourquin and Kelly Turley, director of legislative advocacy for the Mass. Coalition for the Homeless, noted several “positive changes” in the final version. They include changes to make it easier for victims of domestic violence to prove their eligibility, and language that would allow some former homeowners who were evicted after their homes were foreclosed on to qualify for shelter.

Still, they wrote, “the proposal on the key issue of ‘imminent risk of having to stay in a place not meant for human habitation’ is unsatisfactory and will continue to leave too many children at risk.” While DHCD says certain families in this category will be referred to the Dept. of Children and Families for an assessment of the safety of their living conditions, this does not guarantee that those families will be granted shelter, Bourquin and Turley wrote.

The advocacy groups continue to call on state legislators to further amend that part of the regulations. “We thank the administration for making a few positive changes and legislators for helping to make them happen,” they wrote. “But we look forward to continued dialogue and further, much needed changes.” The Mass. Coalition for the Homeless is also asking residents concerned about the issue to contact their local legislators.•

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