Relief from the Street

Issue December 2013 By Jason Scally

MLRI project looks out for homeless families left behind

Ruth Bourquin and Liza Hirsch give new meaning to the phrase "emergency assistance."

The pair, attorneys at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), recently found themselves at South Station at midnight, picking up a family that was planning to spend the night in the bus and train depot. The mother, whom they spoke with earlier in the day after her unsuccessful efforts to obtain emergency shelter, had contacted them to give her family's whereabouts. Alarmingly, she also said a man was offering to give her a ride.

"As soon as we heard from this woman that she's at South Station and there's a gentleman offering her a place to go… it's like history repeating itself," said Bourquin, who got the family to safety and avoided the potentially tragic situation that befell another client a year before. That client, Ginna, spent two nights in South Station with her 17 month-old daughter after her applications for shelter had been denied. A man had also approached Ginna, offering help. He raped her, instead.

Ginna's plight was featured last year in a Boston Globe column ("A safety net that is leaving more people out," Boston Globe, Oct. 7, 2012.), which addressed the emergency shelter regulations that have forced many families into similar situations. And while there has been some increased government investment in affordable housing, the number of families in the shelter system in Massachusetts has climbed to more than 4,100, as of early November - an all-time high.

The MLRI's Family Homelessness Crisis Response Project is at the front lines in the struggle to end homelessness in Massachusetts. Its specific goal is to reduce the number of homeless families with children who are denied access to emergency shelter.

Short-term fixes aimed at bolstering affordable housing are leaving many families out in the cold, so the MLRI is advocating for more long-term, systemic changes to the rules governing family access to emergency shelters. More than ever before, MLRI attorneys like Hirsch and Bourquin also find themselves directly advocating on behalf of individual families trying to get access to emergency shelter, in spite of the obstacles found under current regulations.

It's a tall order, but one now backed by the funding from the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, the philanthropic partner of the Massachusetts Bar Association, which awarded a grant to the Homelessness Crisis Response Project last year - the only new program funded among the 89 Massachusetts Bar Foundation grantees in 2013. The MBF grant has directly contributed to the homelessness project's ability to represent and provide advice to homeless families, legal services providers, social service agencies and medical providers,  as well as its efforts toward influencing needed systemic changes.

"Even at a time of reduced resources," says MBF President Jerry Cohen, "we are proud to be able to respond to critical issues facing our communities. MLRI is an outstanding organization, and this program exemplifies the type of work the MBF seeks to support. It truly increases access to justice and improves lives of those living on the margins."

Not meant for human habitation

There have always been requirements to meet in order to qualify for emergency shelter in Massachusetts. But the regulations that went into effect in September 2012 made it much more difficult by requiring a heightened level of verification from families seeking shelter.

Hirsch notes that before the new regulations, a family could bounce from living with friends and family members, get kicked out and then show up at Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) with "kick-out" letters to demonstrate that they were unable to continue staying with friends and family members. That would be enough to show the family had no feasible alternative housing, and they would qualify for emergency shelter.

"Now they have to [show] no feasible alternative housing, but in addition they have to fit into one of four very narrow categories," Hirsch says, the first three being homeless due to domestic violence; homeless due to fire, flood or natural disaster; or homeless due to no-fault eviction. Most families do not fit under those three, so their only recourse is to claim the fourth category: that they've spent at least one night in a place not meant for human habitation - a car, a bus station and an emergency room are some common examples.

But there's more; families need proof. Bourquin explains: "Sometimes they require [families] to have pictures. They ask them to prove where the car was parked. Sometimes they ask if anyone saw them in a car. In an emergency room, they have to get a letter from the emergency room."

It has made it even more important for the type of street-level advocacy that MLRI has more frequently been called upon to provide. "Legal advocacy makes a huge difference with these cases," says Hirsch. "The majority of families who apply without representation are denied access to shelter. But then once an attorney is involved they are almost always going to gain access to shelter."

Not getting better

The commonwealth's fiscal year 2104 budget brought an increased investment in affordable housing, with funding dedicated to 1,000 new Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) vouchers. Yet, the numbers show it's still far from enough to meet the demand. According to statistics compiled by MLRI from the Division of Housing Stabilization, on Nov. 7, 2013, there were 4,222 families in shelter the shelter system in Massachusetts - 2,122 families in motel units, with another 2,100 families in other placements.

Bourquin explains that, over the past several years, Massachusetts has experimented with providing short-term housing vouchers, most recently through a program called HomeBASE. It initially provided for three-year vouchers, with the idea that families who qualify would be able to save up to afford housing on their own after three years. Meanwhile, lawmakers slashed employment services programs at the same time that help people increase their incomes. Legislators lowered the voucher timeframe to two years, the following year. Many HomeBASE families saw their terms expire this past July, forcing at least 241 of them (as of early November) back into shelter.

The only silver lining: MLRI successfully advocated for language in the FY 2014 budget, which allowed families whose HomeBASE rental assistance expired to fast track into the shelter system, avoiding the burdensome requirements described above. Still, hardships remain due to the imperfect system.

Hirsch described what happened to one Boston family, which found out that their subsidy was ending only the day before. "They told [the mother] to get two trash bags of stuff, because that's all you can have in shelter, and leave the rest behind and go into shelter with your children," Hirsch says. "She was actually placed in Leominster from Boston. It's still devastating for her family. She had to leave her job, and her children were ripped from their schools."

Mortar for the bricks

The MLRI's Homelessness Crisis Response Project is confronting these hardships head-on each day, even when it's not directly involved. "We, here, do some legal advocacy. But we are a huge resource for other legal service programs working with these families," explains MLRI Executive Director Georgia Katsoulomitis. "Ruth and Liza are the go-to people for how this state is addressing this crisis."

The MBF grant has directly contributed to this effort by helping to ensure it can keep its knowledgeable and dedicated attorneys on staff. Grant money also contributes to MLRI's systemic advocacy on Beacon Hill, where they're striving to make sure all homeless families end up in a better place than shelter. Their success with getting HomeBASE families fast-tracked into shelters is one example of the small victories MLRI and other housing advocates have been able to achieve.

This year, the Legislature also funded the Seven Day Temporary Emergency Accommodation (SDTEA) program, which gives families who are denied by DHCD access to a backup shelter system for seven days if they make a credible statement that they have no place to sleep that night with their children. Bourquin estimates the program has helped keep about 300 families from sleeping on the streets since it took effect on Sept. 3.

But they fear it's another short-term fix that won't stem the tide of family homelessness in the long run.

"[The SDTEA program] has helped, but the numbers show that there are still families staying in places not meant for human habitation," says Hirsch, who cited records showing that 72 families slept in such places in September, even with the program in place.

It may not even stem the tide past this month; Bourquin says that the $500,000 earmarked for the program is expected to run out in December. It means MLRI's most pressing need for now is to obtain additional funding for the SDTEA program to extend it at least through the coldest months.

In addition, MLRI will be advocating for the state to increase the rental voucher program. They also point out that while the Patrick administration has tried to make further investments in state public housing, there are many units of existing units sitting vacant because they need maintenance.

"Here we have all these families in motels, and we have vacant housing units," says Bourquin. "We have to get them back online."

The bottom line, according to MLRI, is that the solutions that have been tried thus far haven't worked because they're missing the big picture. A family may get a roof over their heads temporarily with a shelter placement, but what good is it if it takes them away from a job, food and other basic necessities.

"There are all these little bricks, all these little programs out there, but no mortar between the bricks," says Katsoulomitis. "Look at a family holistically. What does a homeless family need? What are the crises they are facing? … If we spend dollars more thoughtfully, I think we can make change in the commonwealth, long-term."

The Massachusetts Bar Foundation, the philanthropic partner of the Massachusetts Bar Association, is the commonwealth's premier legal charity. It represents the commitment of the lawyers and judges of Massachusetts to improve the administration of justice, to promote an understanding of the law and to ensure equal access to the legal system for all residents of the commonwealth, particularly those most vulnerable. For more information on how to donate or get involved, please visit