Op-Ed

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As of September 1st, the state of Massachusetts has revised the conditions for Emergency Assistance, in particular, eligibility for shelter. Homeless patrons may now only enter a shelter if they have lost their home through natural forces, no-fault eviction, fleeing from domestic violence, or unsafe habitation for their children. I am writing today, not to complain about a system currently in effect, but rather to call as many to action as possible to attend the public hearings and raise concern.

Because of the laws currently in effect, being homeless in itself is not enough to qualify for entering a homeless shelter anymore. A significant number of people who are in shelter at this moment would not be eligible if they had to enter today, making this a threat to those still in shelter as well. Without support from the community at the public hearings, these laws are slated to be finalized in November.

To start this call to action, let’s discuss why this is such a big deal. Some shelters will admit patrons under extreme circumstances, but only for specific targeted groups. Teen parent shelters only allow people between the ages of 16-20, with child, and cannot live at home because of violence, substance abuse, or other documented unsafe conditions for their child. For those deemed legally disabled by the Social Security Act, the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program plans to open 400 subsidies to the public – but those are to be allotted so that there are 240 for those in emergency hotels, 160 for those in shelter. This is not a viable option for those who are not already in the system.

For all other cases, homeless or near homeless are at the mercy of homeless prevention charities like the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program. Those who have already hit rock bottom are left without many options under this new system.

Granted, this is a generalization; the eligibility requirements for Emergency Assistance only apply to shelters run by the Department of Housing and Community Development. While they moderate the vast majority of the shelters in the greater Boston area, there are a few small shelters that provide services independent of DHCD, like Queen of Peace. But bear in mind that the smaller shelters have far stricter rules in other areas; for example, Queen of Peace only accepts women and children, and has a three week stay maximum. Three weeks can be a good amount of time to recover from the outdoors, but it’s nowhere near the time a larger congregate or scattered site could allow – and a more permanent residence plays a crucial role in job search, apartment hunting, and any subsidized housing waiting list that requires a consistent mailing address for form updates. In short, these shelters exist, but they will not help people at the same volume of other shelters.

Which brings me to the next problem: without a permanent residence, the stigma of being homeless is harder to avoid. Lacking a consistent mailing address, or even a bathroom for proper hygiene, can stamp someone as homeless, and the rest of the world will begin stereotyping. People instantly wonder why someone is homeless, then make assumptions, and treat the person as, well… not a person. By giving someone an address and temporary home, shelters provide more than just service; they allow a homeless person to blend in with the rest of the world, which is a valuable asset.

Governor Deval Patrick recently gave this statement to News Talk Radio 96.9 on September 28:
“I simply want to say that the point is there are some people who seek shelter having had a falling out at home, or some kind of break down with they were living with before, or just can’t make that next month’s rent or that last month’s rent and are on the verge of being made homeless because of that. So what we’re trying to do is have a way to intervene before they become homeless.” (The rest of the statement can be found at http:// homesforfamilies.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/governor- patrick-on-eliminating-homelessness/.)

In short, he reiterated that those nearing homelessness have programs like RAFT and HomeBASE Household Assistance (not to be confused with HomeBASE Rental Assistance, which has not seen nearly as much use since the budget cuts at the end of the 2012 fiscal year). Those in hotels or shelters have access to the MRVP lottery subsidies.

What Governor Patrick failed to address in his statement, however, was the future of those homeless through other means right now. Those that don’t qualify for any programs anymore because of this new rule will inevitably fall through the cracks. Not everyone will be able to fight off homelessness with just an additional $4,000 a year from HomeBASE Household Assistance. Some individuals could make this feasible, but anyone with kids will be at risk, especially if they couldn’t find better employment before their time with HomeBASE ran out.

Put optimistically, Governor Patrick’s new policy tries to nip the problem in the bud, and encourages people to not let it get so far as to need shelter, which in theory is moving the homeless towards more personal responsibility. Put pessimistically, Governor Patrick’s new policy turns the entire state’s back on those that are already in need of shelter.

The entire mindset behind this new restriction on eligibility is moving towards an economically damning notion: the only people worthy of homeless shelters are people who are homeless through no fault of their own. While there’s certainly something to be said about wasting the working man’s money on someone who clearly won’t work towards his or her own self sufficiency, it’s blatantly profiling to assume that anyone who made a mistake here or there won’t be the kind of person who could or would fix his or her problems if given that second chance. By the logic of this program, anyone who can’t afford to function on HomeBASE or RAFT, or alternatively enter shelter, is left to sleep on the streets or in a car – and even worse than that, this system promotes the logic that they deserve it!

To speak out at these meetings, please attend the Western Mass Hearing at the Springfield State Office Building on October 22nd from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., or the Eastern Mass Hearing at the State House’s Gardner Auditorium on October 25th from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. I also recommend calling Governor Patrick’s office at 1-888-870-7770, and telling all you know to do so as well.

As it is, Massachusetts is widely renowned for its outreach. The sheer number of non-profits out there are a reason to be proud of this state, and we’re one of the few states legally obligated to have homeless shelter- like options (if you want to see real homelessness, go to California). Movements like this new eligibility law not only limit the number of people these nonprofits can help, but they also tarnish the name we’ve built for ourselves as a caring community.

We must not become so calloused to say that those who can’t or won’t help themselves simply deserve to starve on the streets, with no one reaching out to them. Nobody deserves that kind of abandonment.

-Chalkey Horenstein

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