JP Observer: Homeless families put in danger by the state

All the candidates for election this year, no matter their party, seemed to agree on one value: families. Here in Massachusetts, U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, and Democratic challenger, now Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren, argued fiercely on many topics. But they were both always for families.

Scott Brown’s biography at his U.S. Senate web site says, “He believes in a culture of family, patriotism and freedom.”

Two days after the election, Warren captioned a photo on her Facebook page with a single sentence: “Today I met with Governor Deval Patrick to begin our work together for Massachusetts families.”

Given that support for families is so frequently expressed by public officials, temporary regulations that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began operating under on Sept. 17 are especially shocking. In effect, they encourage homeless families to live in a “situation that presents substantial health and safety risk to the family that is likely to result in significant harm should the family remain.”

Yes, really. This wasn’t lifted from a Dickens novel. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) this fall is denying access to emergency shelter for poor families unless they can prove they have an official “excused fault” eviction or they are living in unhealthy and unsafe conditions.

The new rules, after review and comment, are set to be finalized by the end of this month.

Testimony at a six-hour hearing at Gardner Auditorium in the State House on Oct. 25 by dozens of service providers and people affected described families with little children pressured to sleep in T stations, cars, police stations, beaches, parks and hospital emergency rooms. Under the new regulations—designed to supposedly “prevent” sudden homelessness in favor permanent affordable housing—families find it more difficult to get into shelters or motels after they lose a place to stay, usually with friends or family.

“It feels like a crisis, and it’s snowballing,” Elise Gottesman, head of social work at Martha Eliot Health Center in Jackson Square, said in an interview last week. “The weather is getting cold, and the families are not safe,” she added. “This policy doesn’t seem to be responsible or humane.”

Veronica Nielson-Vilar, director of the Family Resource Center in Jackson Square, as well as Gottesman, appear at the hearing on YouTube along with many others. Nielson-Vilar testified her agency is seeing seven to 10 families a day that have been turned down for emergency housing.

JP resident Georgia Mattison, project coordinator of Poor People’s United Fund, echoed many people at the hearing. “In 40 years of doing advocacy for poor people, I’ve never heard anything so upsetting,” she said in an interview. “I’ve never heard of a government regulation that directly asks families to put themselves in danger.”

In an interview on Nov. 15, undersecretary of DHCD Aaron Gornstein said it was never his department’s intention to put families at risk. “We will be making changes to the regulations” before they are finalized “taking into account what we have been hearing,” he said. “We want to provide a strong safety net.” He said DHCD also wants to form a task force with hospitals and others to monitor the regulations in the future.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote on Oct. 7 about a homeless woman who was raped after she and her toddler took refuge in a stranger’s home rather than sleep in South Station another night. The page-one column detailed the new policy and the unsafe effects it is having.

JP-based AIDS Action Committee, City Life/Vida Urbana, Elizabeth Stone House and Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are among 69 organizations, including Partners HealthCare and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, that sent a letter Oct. 26 to Patrick and other officials asking the state to “preserve the safety net of shelter” newly homeless families had before Sept. 17.

“I am afraid someone is going to die,” Nielson-Vilar told officials at the hearing.

Unless the new rules are changed drastically and soon, everybody should be.


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