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Housing costs, low pay keep homeless families homeless

Damion Hackett works on his homework in a corner of the single room he shares with his mother and three siblings at Jessie's House in Amherst.
Damion Hackett works on his homework in a corner of the single room he shares with his mother and three siblings at Jessie's House in Amherst.
Nathan K. Martin, Associated Press

AMHERST, Mass. — There is just enough space for Lisa Rivera's family to sleep at Jessie's House homeless shelter.

In one room, she fits the full-size bed she shares with her 9-year-old daughter, the trundle for her 11-year-old son, a twin bed for her 14-year-old daughter and a playpen for her 1 1/2-year old son.

"It's comfortable, but it's hard sleeping all together," the 32-year-old woman said. "Sometimes it's so hard."

Faced with domestic abuse, high housing costs and unemployment, Rivera's family finds itself among the growing ranks of the homeless in Massachusetts — and possibly, the country.

About 1,800 homeless families were in Massachusetts shelters last week — up from 1,400 in June 2006 and just under 1,200 in June 2005, according to state figures. There are more families in shelters now than at any time since the inception of the state's family shelter program in 1983, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

State officials blame a wide range of problems — from cuts in assistance to the recent housing crisis.

"We're very concerned that this is going to keep going," said Julia Kehoe, commissioner of the state Department of Transitional Assistance.

Massachusetts is one of the few states that keep government records of the number of homeless families in shelters because state law requires the commonwealth to shelter any family that meets income and other guidelines. The state keeps a daily count to show how many beds it needs, said Robyn Frost, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

Nationally, the picture is much less clear.

Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests there are about 750,000 homeless in the nation on any given night, with about 40 percent of those members of homeless families, said Philip Mangano, director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The overall number of homeless people is up from a few years ago, he said, but nobody can pinpoint an exact number of families because reporting requirements vary widely from state to state.

"Our desire would be to have many more states step up and track the data," Mangano said. "Research and data, that's what should drive the resources that we make available. Instead it's often anecdote, conjecture and hearsay that does that."

Kehoe attributes the increase in Massachusetts to a convergence of low wages, high housing costs, an increase in housing foreclosures and cuts in federal and state housing assistance programs. Two years ago, lawmakers also lowered the financial eligibility requirements to qualify for homeless benefits from the poverty level to those making 130 percent of what would be considered a poverty wage, she said.

"I think what we are seeing here is a perfect storm," she said. "Until we have some investment in affordable housing, and some flexibility in using our resources, we're not going to see a leveling off of these numbers."

Rivera lost her apartment in Springfield in 2005, when a domestic abuse case involving the father of her youngest child prompted the state to remove all four youngsters from her custody, she said. Without the money she had been receiving in Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Rivera could not pay her rent.

She moved in with friends, worked at a gas station, went to school to become a medical receptionist and fought in court to get her children back.

A judge eventually restored custody, but without a place to live, the family has moved from one shelter after another.

"It's hard to get an apartment anywhere, especially with the size of apartment I need," she said. "There's none out there, and once one comes available, there are just so many of us out here that need, it gets taken up with the snap of a finger."

The New England Farm Workers Council, a private nonprofit agency contracted by the state, is helping Rivera look for permanent housing. She has an income of just over $1,400 a month, all from either TAFDC or Social Security, which she receives for her 9-year-old who suffers from epilepsy.

The agency requires that families spend no more that 50 percent of their income in rent, a figure designed to make it more likely that families won't get behind on those payments.

But rents for a three-bedroom apartment in the greater Springfield area range from about $800 to $1,300 without utilities, said Tom Salter, the vice president of the agency's shelter and housing division.

"A minimum wage job for 40 hours a week is just not going to pay the rent in any area," he said. "It just isn't."

There are state programs that help once a homeless family finds a new place to live. Rental assistance, however, often is difficult to get. The state spends about $30 million on rental subsidies, compared with about $120 million 15 years ago, and there also have been no new incremental increases in major federal subsidies in about a decade, Kehoe said.

Commissioner Kehoe and Frost said families also are being squeezed by the recent national lending crisis, as high mortgages that have forced some landlords to sell or face foreclosure.

"Although most of the homeless were not homeowners, many could have been people living in units that had been foreclosed," Frost said.

Rivera said once she is able to find an apartment, she plans to enroll in another job training program.

"I want to try and live happily ever after if I can," she said. "I try my best to hang in there and do what I got to do. I never want to try and let them be able to take my kids away from me again."