Sunday, November 25, 2012

What next for homeless families?

So after two public hearings, many phone calls and emails, and more than one protest here in Springfield, DHCD has made some changes in the regulations that govern homeless families' access to shelter.  So the situation facing homeless families is somewhat improved.  But the situation is still worse than I've ever seen it.

The gap between people's incomes and the cost of housing and other necessities of life is big enough to swallow the 35% of Springfield's residents who live below the poverty level.  TAFDC benefits-- welfare for families-- had a 10% increase twelve years ago and nothing since. In the last ten years, wages have grown at the slowest rate since the decade of the Great Depression. 

Families who become homeless are those pushed over the edge of the cliff by the backward movement of the working and middle class.The question is, of course, who's doing the pushing?  Who benefits from the misery of so many?

To: Interested Parties
From: Ruth Bourquin (MLRI) and Kelly Turley (Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless)
Date: November 20, 2012
Re: DHCD’s Proposed Changes to “Final” Emergency Assistance Regulations and Guidance

We received today from a third party a memorandum from DHCD outlining certain changes they intend to make to the emergency EA regulations and related pieces of Guidance before they become final.  Some of the planned changes are very important and meaningful, for which we thank the Administration.

But the proposal on the key issue of “imminent risk of having to stay in a place not meant for human habitation” and the requirements for proving “irregular housing” are unsatisfactory and will continue to leave too many children at risk. For this reason, we urge additional changes.

1.         “Imminent risk of staying in a place not meant for human habitation.”

In its memorandum entitled “Further Actions to Strengthen the Safety Net for Homeless Families” dated November 19, 2012, DHCD states on page 2 that it will provide eligibility for certain families at “imminent risk”. But the limitations on this “imminent risk” category are too extreme, e.g. it applies only to (a) those with a child under the age of 6 months, (b) households with a family member with a documented medical condition or diagnosed disability, and (c) those in double up situations in which the presence violates the lease and there is documentation that the landlord will take action to terminate the tenancy if the homeless family remains.

This leaves out most families with vulnerable children whose health and safety will of course be threatened by staying in a place not meant for human habitation, including those with a child over the age of 6 months.

Moreover, the proposed language about “imminent risk” is nowhere in the actual, enforceable regulations. It appears only in a sub-regulatory policy document, Housing Stabilization Notice 2012-06B, p. 7. And the language there does not require that eligibility be conferred in such situations. It only gives DHCD workers discretion to request a DCF health and safety assessment.

While we appreciate that the Administration has made some movement, this is not a satisfactory response with respect either to the substance of the policy or the failure to include the limited protection in the actual regulations.

2.         Irregular Housing Situation/Chronic Couch Surfing.

            On page 2 of its November 19 memorandum, DHCD says it has provided additional instruction on “irregular housing situation.” This additional instruction is also in Housing Stabilization Notice 2012-6B, pages 5- 6. Unfortunately, this additional instruction makes this category more, not less, restrictive than current practice,[1] and will relegate families to as much as a full month of bouncing from one place to another for very short periods of time in each place.

            On page 6 of the Notice, DHCD says:

The determination of what constitutes “persistent irregular housing” in a particular case will vary dependent on a weighing of all the factors. The shorter the lengths of stay in particular places, the greater the number of total moves, the greater the number of different locations, and the longer the time since the family last had regular housing, the more likely that the family will be found to have had persistent irregular housing. In general, a family that has moved every 2–4 days, to at least 6 different locations, over a period of over one month, will be considered to face persistent irregular housing. For daily moves to a different place every night, the total time period might be somewhat shorter; for weekly moves among 6 different families, but without any regular pattern of rotation forming, the total time period should be considerably longer. (emphasis supplied)

This is not a reasonable policy for families with children most of whom are trying to maintain regular attendance at school and parents who are trying to retain employment. And this is a policy that will subject homeless families to additional serious stress and related health risks.

3.         Positive Changes.
            The regulations are being amended to provide:
a) that a family evicted for purely no fault reasons can be eligible for shelter without first staying in a place not meant for human habitation or engaging in irregular housing, 67.06(1)(a)3.e;
b) that a double-up housing situation will qualify as a significant threat to health and safety if it qualifies as “unfit for human habitation” pursuant to the State Sanitary Code, 67.06(1)(f)6.d.(iv); and
c) that the exhaustion of time limits in a time-limited emergency family homeless shelter not funded by EA qualifies as “irregular overnight sleeping situation.” This should cover the end of stays in motels paid for by Travelers Aid, regional networks, faith community groups and others, although clarification of that from DHCD would be helpful.

Certain sub-regulatory Guidance is also being amended as follows:
a) DHCD sub-regulatory Guidance on Domestic Violence is being amended to allow required third-party professional documentation to be dated close in time to the EA application even if the domestic violence that was fled occurred more than 60 days before the application. To avoid confusion, we would continue to suggest that DHCD simply remove the language about requiring documentation “dated close in time to the domestic violence incident” on page 7 of the Notice 2012-07A, instead of keeping that requirement and then creating a fiction that more recent documentation meets that standard. Most importantly, the DV Guidance has not yet been amended to allow crediting of a domestic violence survivor’s own declaration of the violence or of statements by family members, friends, neighbors or other third parties who do not meet the definition of a “professional” yet have knowledge of the violence.
b) A provision has been included in new Housing Stabilization Notice 2012-06B recognizing that a family is eligible for shelter if they are being kicked out of a double-up because their presence violates a lease and there is documentation confirming that the landlord will take action to enforce the lease. This change is positive, but too limited. Many host tenants will reasonably not want to tell their landlords that they have violated the lease by having guests. Proof that the presence of the EA applicant family violates the lease should be enough.
c)  Former homeowners who were foreclosed upon and then evicted may qualify under the “no fault” eviction provisions but only if their foreclosure was based on failure to make mortgage payments due to decreased income within the past 12 months or due to a disability or medical condition. No provision is made to confer eligibility on victims of predatory lending.

            We thank the Administration for making the positive changes and Legislators for helping to make them happen. But we look forward to continued dialogue and further, much-needed changes, particularly with respect to the issues of “imminent risk of staying in a housing situation not meant for human habitation” and requirements for proving an “irregular housing situation.” 

[1] The adoption of this more restrictive language without another 60 days advance notice to the legislature is arguably unlawful.
Print Friendly and PDF

No comments: