By Carol Kozma

Statehouse Bureau

and Colleen Quinn

State House News Service

LEOMINSTER -- For the past two years, Daysi Avalos was happy she and her five children had a home to live in, so it was a shock when the rental assistance she received from the state ran out last month.

She and her children -- who range in age from 8 to 18 -- were forced to leave their Dorchester apartment immediately and move into a motel shelter in Leominster, the closest one available, she was told.

Avalos is among the 5,400 families enrolled in the state's HomeBASE rental-assistance program that are starting to roll off the two-year program. The assistance is scheduled to end for all recipients by June 30, according to a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

"I was just able to get some of the clothes for my kids. They told me if I didn't do exactly as the letter said I would lose out on everything. I had to leave all my dishes and everything behind," Avalos said through a Spanish-speaking interpreter.

Lawmakers and homelessness advocates are worried there could be many more families like Avalos' in the coming months as the HomeBASE program comes to an end.

It seems no one, from legislative leaders to state officials and local advocates for the homeless, is satisfied with a supplementary budget bill item providing $13 million to place homeless people into hotels and motels.

"I don't think it's cost-effective, and I don't think it's good for the families," House Speaker Robert DeLeo said as he left a House caucus hearing last week.

DeLeo, who has been working to reduce the number of hotel homeless over the past few sessions, said he would support the measure as a stop-gap against the rising number of homeless families. He said a future welfare bill will address job growth and the homeless situation.

Last year, the Department of Housing and Community Development, which finds hotel and motel lodging for homeless families, spent $44 million to relocate families into the temporary housing. This year the state appropriated $6 million.

Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary at the department, said he would like to have an alternative to putting families in one-room lodgings.

"We do not prefer to have to place families in the motel. These are families with children, there is usually no play space, a lack of transportation, no cooking facilities," he said.

Gornstein said the average stay in hotels and motels for a family is seven months.

He said the department works hard on prevention programs to keep families in homes. Last year, the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, gave financial assistance to 3,000 low-income families to keep them in homes.

Avalos, 43, lost her job as a cleaning woman at a Boston hospital when she moved. But the hardest part about being homeless again, she said, is the effect on her children. They left their school and friends behind.

Her youngest child is acting out and doesn't want to eat, and the others are sad, she said. After two years in a home of their own, the move back to a motel is tough, Avalos said.

"I am happy there is a place for us, people like us who ended up without a home," she says about the shelter. "But it is very disheartening."

Judith Nest-Pasierb, executive director of Our Father's House, a homeless shelter for families in Fitchburg, said the 20 homeless family units ranging from a three- to five-person occupancy have been filled all summer.

Across the state, there were 2,036 homeless families placed in motels and hotels, according to the DHCD. In Leominster, there were 82 families.

Nest-Pasierb said homeless families should be assigned case workers who can help them find stable jobs and permanent homes.

"We look at the whole individual, the dynamic, we help families to get back to school for their GED, we look at education, housing, employment," Nest-Pasierb said.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said there would be more support for job training and affordable housing if the legislature had raised taxes higher earlier this year. Eldridge supported a $1.4 billion bond bill, which included building more public housing for the homeless. He also supports raising the state's $8-per-hour minimum wage.

"Unfortunately, we passed a very modest tax package," Eldridge said. "The economy is getting better for people who are more educated, for poorer people, a lot of them have not seen the benefits."

Phil Grzewinski, president of United Way of North Central Massachusetts, which promotes health, education, and financial stability programs, also noticed the increase in homelessness this summer.

"This all stems from the significant economic downturn," Grzewinski said.

Grzewinski said there are two different homeless populations: The systematically homeless, and those who have lost jobs in the economic downturn. These latest victims have to learn how to use the system, he said.

He said he sees the problems continuing despite the end to the recession.

"There are signs that it (the economy) is getting better, but I don't see hiring signs, and I don't see the classifieds bursting," Grzewinski said.

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