Advocates for homeless on alert as emergency winds down

Coronavirus Local Impact

BOSTON (SHNS) – As Massachusetts officials prepare to lift the state of emergency that the Baker administration has used to slow COVID-19 transmission, advocates for people experiencing homelessness are concerned about the fate of emergency services and resources that have provided lifelines to unsheltered persons during the pandemic.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced at the start of the week that his administration plans to rescind, starting May 29, virtually all of the COVID-19 restrictions that have governed life over the past year and the state of emergency will be lifted on June 15.

The Baker administration had previously set an Aug. 1 date for lifting restrictions but as COVID-19 case counts continued to decline and vaccination rates steadily increased, the governor moved the date up by several months.

This leaves about a month to figure out what to do with the laundry list of executive orders, emergency funding, and policies that have been used to help stem the impacts of the pandemic for people all across the state. And for people working with shelters and those experiencing homelessness, there’s a mix of optimism and concern for what lifting the state of emergency means.

Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, said there is a sense of relief that things could be returning to some semblance of normalcy. But as organizations like MHSA continue to work with people experiencing homelessness, he said, the new reopening dates should not mean a return to the pre-pandemic shelter norm.

“As we are dealing with the issue of homelessness in the commonwealth and the impact COVID has had on the emergency shelter system, the emergency isn’t quite over for us,” he told the News Service Monday. “Most providers are trying to not return to the way things were because nobody wants to go through that particular experience again. But they also have recognized how shelter settings are not the best environment for the people they are serving.”

Finn is referring to congregate shelter settings — shared living and sleeping spaces — one of the many options providers for homeless individuals have. For Finn, he would rather public and private officials explore non-congregate options — living spaces that offer some level of privacy — as the state moves toward a post-pandemic future.

One oft-cited example: A partnership between the city of Brockton and Father Bill’s & MainSpring to purchase a vacant motel and convert it into permanent supportive housing. Father Bill’s President John Yazwinski said he does not want to return to people sleeping on floors in congregate shelters.

“We’re hoping that we don’t go back to overflowing our shelters and having people sleeping on our floors,” he said “And even if we’re going to be able to allow more people in, I’m sure we’re not going back to the way it was pre-pandemic, which means that what are we going to do for the lack of beds? Right? So what’s the short-term and the long-term plan?”

Federal Funds

Kelly Turley, associate director at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said Baker’s decision to lift the state of emergency on June 15 means the fate of some programs, federal funds, and services are up in the air.

People experiencing homelessness and housing instability, she said, are bearing the brunt of the pandemic in terms of access to resources, job loss, and becoming infected with COVID-19.

“The emergency isn’t over yet and it won’t be over for the lowest-income families and individuals,” she told the News Service Tuesday.

Some shelter providers have utilized funds made available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up long-term housing units. The federal dollars were originally made available for states and territories to acquire larger living spaces for people who needed to quarantine or isolate.

Some states made the case to expand the population of people who could use those spaces and Massachusetts did receive broader authorization from FEMA for the non-congregate settings. Turley said the state’s eligibility to use those funds could disappear once the state of emergency is lifted.

“In talking to some providers this morning who have placed individuals in these non-congregate places that are funded by FEMA, concerns that not everybody will have a chance to be relocated, to seek permanent housing before the June 15 deadline,” she said. “That may mean that those individuals, in some cases families, then have to have multiple transitions before they can get to permanent housing.”

As the state of emergency is set to lift, Finn said he is looking for clarification from state and federal officials on the use of emergency resources that were made available to shelters to house people during the pandemic.

“The FEMA dollars, in particular, a lot of those were being utilized to provide [non-congregate] shelter,” he said. “What happens when the state of emergency is over is something we are trying to get clarified on the part of the federal government.”

Moving Forward

Since the start of the pandemic, Turley said, families have only been able to apply for state-funded shelter by phone and online means. The Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless is concerned that many families have not been able to navigate the process due to language barriers or lack of technology.

Turley said the coalition is trying to figure out the exact timeline for when the Department of Housing and Community Development will reopen the local offices that facilitate in-person application processes.

“We do anticipate that there will be an even greater demand for shelter services once the state of emergency is lifted,” she said.

At a press conference Monday, Baker said a need to work with the Legislature to decide which pandemic-era resources and policies should carry over was part of the reason his administration decided not to lift the state of emergency until June 15.

MHSA Senior Director of Policy and Programs Joyce Tavon said one of her organization’s biggest concerns is whether or not there will be an “appropriate amount of time to figure out plans so that people are not left unsheltered.”

“I understand the state’s decision to lift the state of emergency has to factor in so many things,” Tavon said. “If the question is, would we like to see a longer timeframe for funding of the non-congregate shelter by these emergency federal resources? The answer would be yes.”

Finn said he would like the Legislature and administration further develop the concept of non-congregate housing, develop a comprehensive plan around addressing homelessness, and utilize shallow rental subsidy programs.

“It is a healthier alternative. It allows for easier transition into permanent housing for medically complex persons,” he said. “I think that that’s something that is really a great discussion to have. I think the age of these mass congregate shelters is over quite honestly. I think we should move towards a healthier, more housing-based approach like that.”

Another concern for advocates: maximum benefits for the state’s Residential Assistance for Families in Transition — otherwise known as RAFT — were increased to $10,000 for any 12 month period during the state of emergency in the fiscal 2021 budget. Maximum benefits will drop to $7,000 on June 15 when the emergency is lifted, Turley said.

Sen. Brendan Crighton filed an amendment to the Senate Ways and Means fiscal 2022 budget proposal (S 3) that would cap benefits at $10,000 for an entire fiscal year as opposed to during the state of emergency.

As the Legislature continues to work through the fiscal 2022 budget, Tavon said she is concerned about resources and funding for supportive housing.

“Other affordable housing dollars, of course, are critical and the steps to ensure that what is being funded for shelter is safe, is depopulated, wherever possible that we’re encouraging kind of more dignified, no congregate settings,” she said.

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