Thursday January 3, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- Massachusetts intends to phase out a program that places homeless families in hotels and motels at taxpayers’ expense when there is no room in emergency shelters.

Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the Department of Housing and Community Development, says the state aims to end the program by June 2014, The Associated Press reported on Wednesday.

Homeless families are placed in hotels when the 2,000 rooms in the state’s family emergency shelter system reach capacity. There were nearly 1,700 families reported living in hotels last month.

Some advocates for the homeless in the state worry families will end up on the streets.

But Brad Gordon, executive director of Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, said the plan will have "little to no impact" on the Berkshires since few homeless families use hotels or motels as homes in the county.

The housing authority provides more than a dozen kinds of services and programs, from homelessness prevention to mediation, to help prevent people from losing their homes due to lack of income, mental health issues, developmental or physical disabilities and/or substance abuse.

"What we hope the state is moving to do is repurpose these resources, specifically toward programming that can create greater housing stability for our populations," Gordon said.

It cost the state $45 million during the 2012 fiscal year as some families stayed in hotels for months.

Gornstein told The Boston Globe the program is not an efficient use of resources. Most hotels have no cooking facilities or play spaces for children.

Gordon said it has been about 20 years since Berkshire County had any significant number of families using local hotel rooms under the state’s emergency shelter system.

"We’ve worked hard in Berkshire County over the past decade to ensure we have a robust shelter program," Gordon said. He credited that to the collaborative work done between the housing authority and other area real estate, community planning and social service agencies.

"But it doesn’t mean we don’t face challenges here," he added.

For example, Berkshire Community Action Council operates Our Friends’ House, an emergency shelter on West Street in Pittsfield that offers six rooms for families through the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Because they are state-operated, the units are not designated solely for use by county families.

"At any given time, 90 percent of the units are filled by people out of the area," said Gordon. He said that families can be reluctant to access that kind of emergency shelter because if the rooms are filled, they can be assigned to a shelter in places like West Springfield or farther.

Last year, the state introduced new income requirements, limiting the number of families who qualified for rental vouchers. People seeking emergency assistance, such as in the case of eviction or overcrowding, may be referred to the state’s HomeBASE Program, which offers limited-time rent assistance.

He also said some homeless individuals and families in Berkshire County are "critically housing unstable," meaning they end up moving to different places multiple times throughout a given year.

Gordon said the best investment is in permanent, affordable housing.