Here's how this happened: Liz has been working with this family since September 27, trying to help them get into a family shelter. Until recently, they lived in New York but traveled frequently to Springfield because their eight year old son has spina bifida, and has received treatment all his life from Shriner's Hospital. The dad is the kind of guy who's always been able to do what he needed to take care of his family but he was recently diagnosed with heart problems and he can't go back to work until the docs can figure out-- and treat-- what's wrong with him. The son receives disability but otherwise, the family has never been on public assistance.
Given that dad was not working anymore, they decided to move to Springfield to be closer to their son's doctors at Shriner's. They found an apartment long-distance, negotiated, and and paid first month's rent. But when they arrived in Springfield, the landlord saw the son's service dog, and refused to rent to them. They had no place to go, and moved into Motel 6 in Chicopee, where they quickly went through their reserve money. By last Monday, they were down to their last week of money, and we referred them to the Dept. of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), housed in the welfare office. They were told it didn't look good for them to qualify for shelter, but thus began the endless quest for "verifications" needed to determine their case. Last Friday, when they were at the DHCD office, and told the workers there that they only had enough money to pay through till Monday night, they were told that they were not homeless yet, they were only "preparing to be homeless." Unfortunately, the day that they would actually be homeless was on Monday, Columbus Day, a day the DHCD office was closed.
We started calling churches to see if anyone could help pay for the family to stay until Tuesday morning, a lo and behold, Grace Episcopal Church in Chicopee paid for the night. And then, this morning, they packed up all their stuff and, at 9 am., went back to DHCD.
More verifcations. They had to go to Shriner's to get a letter verifying their son had spina bifida and was a patient there! All day the family called us from DHCD to keep us updated on how it was going with them. Finally, after checking it was OK with the family, I called DHCD and left a message that if they didn't find a place for this family TODAY that they could see the family being interviewed on Channel 22 and then it would be up to DHCD so explain how they could leave a kid in a wheelchair out on the street. Then I called the associate director of HAP, whose agency. I had heard has some Emergency Shelter Grant funds, and asked them if they would use that money to get the family back in a motel Finally, at 4:30, I got a call from HAP, saying that they would pay for the family in the Super 8 motel until Friday morning. We were all greatly relieved. (I suspect DHCD and HAP were communicating about how to avoid negative publicity, as HAP administers several pots of money designed for families not eligible for shelter, or to help families already in shelter get out-- not enough to mitigate the now astounding 78% denial rate of families in need of shelter or housing.
At 9 pm tonight, Liz called me. The mom had called Liz at home to say they were parked outside the Motel 8 because no verification that HAP was willing to pay for their rooms had ever arrived! They'd actually gone to the motel much earlier, about 6 pm., and were told "No verification yet, come back later." So they had just been waiting, two adults, one of them sick, 5 children, one in a wheelchair, and a service dog-- in the van, in the cold.
Liz called Prospect Shelter, a program of HAP, to see if they had an emergency number for HAP personnel, but they didn't. I called the WMA director of DHCD, whose work cellphone number I happened to have, but she didn't pick up and I left a message. Called Liz back and she said she could front the money to pay for two rooms for the night, but she would absolutely need it back.
"Don't worry," I said, "HAP was willing to pay for them so why shouldn't they reimburse you?"
Liz set out to drive to West Springfield. The DHCD director called me back and I filled her in. She couldn't understand why HAP hadn't paid. . I told her Liz was headed over to pay if necessary. She said to give her tn minutes to see what she could do.Ten minutes later she called me back and said she'd called HAP's director, co-director, and the head of the consumer housing division and none of them could understand what happened, either! However, she didn't say that any of them had a clue or a suggestion about what to do -- none of them had volunteered to drive to West Springfield. I think they were supposed to call her back-- as it approached 10 pm at night!!-- but as we were talking Liz beeped in to say she had paid for the family and they were set for the night.
I beeped back over to the DHCD director and told her what had happened, and that Liz had paid.
"Why didn't the family call earlier?"
"How would they know that nobody at HAP would be working and calling the motel after 5 pm? And besides-- what if they hadn't had Liz's number to call at all?"
"I know, that would have been awful," she said, "but, you know, you're absolutely not being reimbursed for this."
"What!!!" I said.
"Don't pay for a room for a family unless you're doing it out of the goodness of your heart."
"Goodness of our hearts? What do you think we've been doing tonight? But you don't understand-- we are these people-- we need the money back-- and if HAP was willing to pay for this family and then through their own incompetence failed to do so, then I think they can pay us back."
"Well, you know, HAP gets this pot of money the same way you do...through donations, contributions..."
"HAP gets ESG money," I said, and she didn't answer.
"Well, I'm not getting in the middle of this," she said. "I just want to make sure this isn't splashed all over your blog, that DHCD won't pay you back.
"Well, you very well may see it in our blog, if I'm not too tired to write it, but it won't be DHDC I'm mad about, it'll be HAP."
Now I need to take back half those words and not the half about HAP. Although the local DHCD office was not responsible for tonight's fiasco, the new regulations DHCD put in effect as of August 1 are creating panic and chaos across the low-income community. "Not eligible" is not the same as not homeless, not in need, not cold and not hungry. But "not eligible" more and more implies a judgment of "not worthy" by our policy makers and enforcers.
DHCD is having a hearing in Springfield on the new regulations, and how it's working out for everyone (!). If you're an affected family, a housed community member who cares about what's happening to the most vulnerable families, or you just want to see dissembling at its best, we need you to be there.
Western Massachusetts Hearing:
Monday, October 22nd
10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Springfield State Office Building
436 Dwight Street, Room 305
Springfield, MA 01103