Michelle Espada has gained 70 pounds since she moved to the Bedford Plaza Hotel.
"Eating microwaveable food. I can't walk much anymore," she said. "It makes me cry sometimes, because it feels like you're drowning all the time."
The mother of two young boys, Espada couldn't afford rent. She's been on waiting lists for affordable housing for four years.
"Nothing's changed," she said. "I'm still pending."
Sixteen months ago Espada's family became homeless, and she applied to the state for help. But Massachusetts has no room left for homeless families. The state's 2,000 shelters filled up during the recession as parents who lost their jobs, got foreclosed on, got sick, or just couldn't earn enough became homeless along with their children. So, like roughly 2,000 other families, Espada is living in a hotel paid for by the state.
Massachusetts Undersecretary of Housing Aaron Gornstein said they can't stay there much longer. Under pressure from communities with participating hotels, Gornstein wants to move them to new "congregate shelters" — group homes where several families each have a bedroom and share kitchens and other common areas. To make that happen, Gornstein wants to dramatically expand the state's system of congregate shelters at a total cost of $91 million. And he wants to have the new shelters in place by spring to meet a pledge he made two years ago to have families out of hotels by this July.
Once the new shelters are in place, Massachusetts will have to spend millions of dollars more annually to maintain them.
“We’re resizing our shelter system to accommodate more families so we don’t have to place them in motels," Gornstein said. But, he added, “If we need to maintain the hotel program because there’s still a need for emergency shelter, we will do so.”
For Gornstein's plan to work, the state legislature needs to approve the cost of 1,000 shelters. But 650 are already being set up by nonprofit contractors, including Heading Home.
Tom Lorello, executive director of Heading Home, said the new facilities, with their onsite staff, cost about $100 a day per family, compared with $80 a day per family at a hotel.
"Right now the consequences of waiting for us to get the number of housing units up is too great,” he said. “So, we also have to act on this front, too, and make sure we’re getting up the shelters that’ll offer an alternative to the hotels, because otherwise you’ll have families staying in these hotels for years.”
Instead, it is “theoretically possible” that families moved from hotels will stay in shelters for years, Gornstein acknowledged, since the wait for affordable or subsidized housing can now be as long as a decade. The state gives homeless families in shelters expedited status that can reduce their wait to about two years, but that means others on the list wait longer. As an example of the demand, Gornstein said 95,000 families are on the waiting list for one type of subsidized housing, Section 8.
“There is an important issue of how we balance our housing policy to make sure that those who have been waiting also have a chance,” he said.
There’s also the issue of affordable housing being affordable enough, said Chris Norris, executive director of the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership — the state’s largest regional provider of rental assistance.
“If you dig deeply at the numbers, the majority of housing built under almost any of our programs does not serve the lowest income families,” Norris said. “And if we have 4,000 families in shelters tonight, the majority of them will not be served by the housing that’s being built.”
Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, the state association of shelters, agreed the state failed to make a big enough investment in long-term affordable housing, even after a special commission appointed by Governor Deval Patrick found in 2008 that the most efficient use of taxpayer money was placing homeless families in permanent homes. So, when the homelessness crisis hit, the state had to take costly temporary measures, Hayes said.“Congregate housing is the new affordable housing,” she said. “Money is being wasted in the sense that we’re spending so much on short-term solutions and so much on hotels. But we can’t just stop everything and put children in the street and say, ‘Hold on, we’re going to build housing now.’ So it’s hard, and that’s the trap.”
Ruth Bourquin of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute agrees; she's representing families in hotels suing the state.
“We are never going to solve this problem until we start facing reality about how big the problem is and how hard it is to solve, and potentially how expensive it is to solve,” she said.
But Gornstein said the state and advocates have to be positive and address obstacles as they come.
“It’s challenging,” he said. “But I like to be optimistic.”
Towns Sheltering Homeless Families In Hotels:
Meanwhile, residents in towns with participating hotels are getting impatient.
“I want to state the obvious question in the room: What about the residents that do not want the shelter at all and want it to be a hotel, which it was built to be?” asked resident Jessica Lanteen at a Bedford town meeting in October. “Do the people of Bedford get a say in whether it’s a hotel or a shelter?”
In the months since then, more than 40 families have been moved from the Bedford Plaza Hotel into affordable housing or shelters. The remaining 48 families wait anxiously for their call, including Gihan Abdeleziz, her husband, and her baby boy. Abdeleziz said she hasn't left the hotel in weeks because she doesn’t have the right clothes to walk long stretches in the cold — which is what you have to do if you want to get anywhere from the Plaza in winter. An Egyptian immigrant, Abdeleziz said she can't understand why Massachusetts taxpayers would spend money to keep her in a place where it's hard to get to a job or any support services that would help lift her family out of poverty.
“Is this punishment?" she asked. "Because we ask for help?”
This story was modified to accommodate a clarification from Ruth Bourquin.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit newsroom based at Boston University and the studios of WGBH News. NECIR interns Michael Bottari, Rebecca Lee and Madelyn Powell assisted with the research for this story.
Housing and Community Development Undersecretary Aaron Gornstein and Homes for Families Executive Director Libby Hayes joined Greater Boston on Feb. 24 to talk about housing the homeless in hotels: