Massachusetts is the only state in the country in which the government has a legal obligation to give shelter to homeless families. But Massachusetts also has a Republican governor. Can you see where this is going?
A group of five homeless women are suing the state for what they say is a failure to provide them with emergency shelter. The suit also accuses Massachusetts of shirking its duty thanks to a campaign promise by Gov. Charlie Baker to stop housing homeless families in hotels and motels when homeless shelters are full.
Baker's promise to stop the use of motels for shelter seemed well-intentioned on the campaign trail. There are lots of reasons the practice is less than ideal. Motels are far from the best place for children to live and learn, and the cost to the state can be quite high. Despite these flaws though, a motel is still better than being completely homeless.
Baker has followed through on this promise, as the Boston Globe reports the number of families taking shelter in motels has dropped from 1,500 prior to his administration taking office in 2014 to fewer than 160 currently. The lawsuit alleges that in its aggressive pursuit to reduce motel placements, the state has been leaving families with substandard or sometimes no shelter in violation of the law.
“Everybody agrees that it would be good to ensure that homeless families are in better placements than motels," Ruth A. Bourquin of Greater Boston Legal Services told the Globe. "But what’s happening is that they end up in places that are worse — not in shelter at all, or in far-flung places where their lives are further disrupted."
One of the plaintiffs in the suit is Rosanna Garcia, a homeless mother with three children. The lawsuit alleges that, rather than place her family in a shelter or a motel, state workers convinced Garcia's mother to take them in at her public housing apartment, in which she is not allowed to have unauthorized tenants.
Another plaintiff, Maria Luis Amparo, was forced to stay two nights with her seven and nine year old daughters in the waiting room of a nonprofit center because the state could not "immediately" place her. When they were eventually placed, it was at a shelter outside Boston, disrupting her daughters' education.
The Baker administration defended its policies in a statement to reporters.
"Massachusetts is the only state in the nation that offers homeless children a right to shelter, and DHCD has consistently upheld that right, and acted in compliance with the law, while substantially reducing the state's reliance on motel shelters," a spokesman for the administration said.
Massachusetts is to be commended for doing to much to help homeless families as well as trying to find them somewhere better to live than a motel. But, again, if the choice is between a motel or nothing, let's go with the motel.