The Beacon: Homeless advocates object to Patrick’s new shelter rules

“The state has a moral obligation to at least adequately fund these programs so we’re not increasing the number of families living on the street in the state of Massachusetts,” said state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton. “We’re talking about the most vulnerable population in the state.”

By Christian Schiavone
3/30/09

Local lawmakers and advocates for the homeless say the Patrick administration’s plan to tighten eligibility requirements for people who turn to emergency shelters will have a negative impact on those most in need.

The proposed changes, which are scheduled to go into affect April 1, would require adults to spend 30 hours a week working or in some kind of training program and save at least 30 percent of their income. The new regulations would also halve the amount of time families are allowed to stay in shelters from six months to three months once their income rises above state guidelines.

Other proposed changes include denying shelter to families that are evicted from or leave public or subsidized housing without good cause would also be denied access to shelters.

The administration says the changes are necessary to effectively deal with the surge in homelessness in recent years amid a budget shortfall. The number of families in emergency shelters has climbed from about 1,100 in fiscal year 2005 to nearly 2,600 today, according to an administration summary of the proposed changes.

But critics of the proposed legislation say the stricter regulations would force hundreds of the commonwealth’s neediest residents onto the street or into unsafe living conditions. The changes would be especially unwelcome at a time when foreclosures and layoffs are forcing more residents out of their homes, the critics argue.

“The timing is horrible,” said Frank Austin, a member of the Acton- and Concord-based Advocacy Network To End Family Homelessness. “There’s no question scores of families will be affected by this.”

Acton’s local legislators have also been actively lobbying the governor’s office to drop the changes or at least delay them.

“The state has a moral obligation to at least adequately fund these programs so we’re not increasing the number of families living on the street in the state of Massachusetts,” said state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton. “We’re talking about the most vulnerable population in the state.”

Eldridge also doubted the administration’s estimates of potential savings of more than $500,000 this fiscal year and about $11 million next year.

Kristina Barry, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said the changes were suggested to close a gap in funding and the administration is reviewing feedback to its proposal.

“Following a period of public comment, including two public hearings, the proposed regulations are being reviewed and final regulations will be announced soon,” Barry wrote in an e-mail.