By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- While the homelessness problem in Massachusetts is undeniable, the Senate's top budget writer says it's just one of many issues competing for a finite pool of financial resources at lawmakers' disposal.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer told the News Service the state should and can do better to move homeless families out of temporary hotel and motel accommodations and into more stable housing. But he also said he has to be realistic about how fast the state can move to eradicate the use of hotels as shelters.
"I won't stand in front of any podium and promise all things to all people all the time, but that we will do our best," said Brewer (D-Barre).
Brewer received an award on Monday from Homes for Families at a "Cookie Day" event co-sponsored by Rep. Kevin Honan, of Boston, and Sen. Jamie Eldridge, of Acton, where anti-homelessness advocates lobbied for a $30 million increase in funding for the state's rental voucher program.
Homes for Families Policy Director Diane Sullivan said the rental voucher program was funded at $120 million in the annual state budget in the early 1990s, but has declined to $57.5 million. By increasing spending to $87.5 million, Sullivan said the state could help 3,000 additional families and individuals find stable housing options.
"Having families in motels on the sides of highways is not a good place for them to be," Sullivan said. "They're not getting the level of services they need. Some of them have been lingering there for more than a year. Some up to two years, and we appreciate the governor's wanting to expand the shelter system to accommodate the need but we need to couple that with an investment in housing, the actual solution that's going to move families out of homelessness."
Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed budget for fiscal 2015 includes an expansion of the shelter system to accommodate more families and roughly level funds the MRVP program to preserve the increases over the past two years that have added 2,500 vouchers. With vouchers staying with recipients for years, the cost of any expansion must be annualized and maintained from year to year.
"The Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program is one component of the Administration's comprehensive approach to address the Commonwealth's housing needs. Under the Governor's leadership, the program experienced its first significant expansion in 20 years by funding over 2500 new vouchers over the past two fiscal years. The Governor's FY15 budget proposal not only sustains those increases but also funds additional vouchers for the upcoming fiscal year," Undersecretary for the Department of Housing and Community Development Aaron Gornstein said in a statement.
Since an explosion in the number of homeless families sheltered in hotels and motels last fall, DHCD says the number has declined 10 percent since December and dropped to its lowest level at 1,977 families since September. The number of families sheltered in hotels and motels peaked in early December at around 2,175.
The House and Senate two weeks ago also passed competing mid-year spending bill that included $45.6 million for the renewal of existing state housing contracts and the addition of 650 congregate housing beds for the elderly and disabled, and $12 million for the explosion of hotel and motel costs for homeless families.
Brewer said the MVRP and Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) programs are "sustainable and good programs," but also expensive. "We'll try to do the best we can," Brewer said.
Asked whether those two programs have failed in light of the high motel populations, Brewer said there are two economies in Massachusetts - one for the haves and one for the families and individuals continuing to struggle to make ends meet.
"It's not that it hasn't worked but that the population has continued to grow and that goes to the two economies and more and more people who have not had the opportunity. I wouldn't say it hasn't worked but whether we've had the capacity to do it all at the same time," Brewer said.
Sullivan said that because the federal government is not providing additional resources for public housing and because it takes time to build an affordable housing stock, the MRVP program is "the only game in town."
"The problem is we have an affordable housing crisis that's causing families, many of them are working, to not be able to pay the rent," Sullivan said.
She would not, however, want to see the Legislature take money away from the shelter system to expand the use of vouchers, suggesting it doesn't need to be an either-or proposition.
"I feel very uncomfortable about battling for the same resources for shelter or housing," Sullivan said.
Brewer said he would like to allocate more funding for MRVP and RAFT, but also hears daily from local officials about other needs such as local aid, regional school transportation and a $100 million bill for snow and ice removal.
"Housing is an acute and somewhat intractable issue," Brewer said. "What is the alternative in Massachusetts in 2014? You can't have people living in shelters and motels, but it is expensive and when we do these budgets I've got to balance a lot of other issues."