MLRI project looks out for homeless families left behind
Ruth Bourquin and Liza Hirsch give new meaning to the phrase
The pair, attorneys at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
(MLRI), recently found themselves at South Station at midnight,
picking up a family that was planning to spend the night in the bus
and train depot. The mother, whom they spoke with earlier in the
day after her unsuccessful efforts to obtain emergency shelter, had
contacted them to give her family's whereabouts. Alarmingly, she
also said a man was offering to give her a ride.
"As soon as we heard from this woman that she's at South Station
and there's a gentleman offering her a place to go… it's like
history repeating itself," said Bourquin, who got the family to
safety and avoided the potentially tragic situation that befell
another client a year before. That client, Ginna, spent two nights
in South Station with her 17 month-old daughter after her
applications for shelter had been denied. A man had also approached
Ginna, offering help. He raped her, instead.
Ginna's plight was featured last year in a Boston Globe
column ("A safety net that is leaving more people out," Boston
Globe, Oct. 7, 2012.), which addressed the emergency shelter
regulations that have forced many families into similar situations.
And while there has been some increased government investment in
affordable housing, the number of families in the shelter system in
Massachusetts has climbed to more than 4,100, as of early November
- an all-time high.
The MLRI's Family Homelessness Crisis Response Project is at the
front lines in the struggle to end homelessness in Massachusetts.
Its specific goal is to reduce the number of homeless families with
children who are denied access to emergency shelter.
Short-term fixes aimed at bolstering affordable housing are
leaving many families out in the cold, so the MLRI is advocating
for more long-term, systemic changes to the rules governing family
access to emergency shelters. More than ever before, MLRI attorneys
like Hirsch and Bourquin also find themselves directly advocating
on behalf of individual families trying to get access to emergency
shelter, in spite of the obstacles found under current
It's a tall order, but one now backed by the funding from the
Massachusetts Bar Foundation, the philanthropic partner of the
Massachusetts Bar Association, which awarded a grant to the
Homelessness Crisis Response Project last year - the only new
program funded among the 89 Massachusetts Bar Foundation grantees
in 2013. The MBF grant has directly contributed to the homelessness
project's ability to represent and provide advice to homeless
families, legal services providers, social service agencies and
medical providers, as well as its efforts toward influencing
needed systemic changes.
"Even at a time of reduced resources," says MBF President Jerry
Cohen, "we are proud to be able to respond to critical issues
facing our communities. MLRI is an outstanding organization, and
this program exemplifies the type of work the MBF seeks to support.
It truly increases access to justice and improves lives of those
living on the margins."
Not meant for human habitation
There have always been requirements to meet in order to qualify
for emergency shelter in Massachusetts. But the regulations that
went into effect in September 2012 made it much more difficult by
requiring a heightened level of verification from families seeking
Hirsch notes that before the new regulations, a family could
bounce from living with friends and family members, get kicked out
and then show up at Department of Housing and Community Development
(DHCD) with "kick-out" letters to demonstrate that they were unable
to continue staying with friends and family members. That would be
enough to show the family had no feasible alternative housing, and
they would qualify for emergency shelter.
"Now they have to [show] no feasible alternative housing, but in
addition they have to fit into one of four very narrow categories,"
Hirsch says, the first three being homeless due to domestic
violence; homeless due to fire, flood or natural disaster; or
homeless due to no-fault eviction. Most families do not fit under
those three, so their only recourse is to claim the fourth
category: that they've spent at least one night in a place not
meant for human habitation - a car, a bus station and an emergency
room are some common examples.
But there's more; families need proof. Bourquin explains:
"Sometimes they require [families] to have pictures. They ask them
to prove where the car was parked. Sometimes they ask if anyone saw
them in a car. In an emergency room, they have to get a letter from
the emergency room."
It has made it even more important for the type of street-level
advocacy that MLRI has more frequently been called upon to provide.
"Legal advocacy makes a huge difference with these cases," says
Hirsch. "The majority of families who apply without representation
are denied access to shelter. But then once an attorney is involved
they are almost always going to gain access to shelter."
Not getting better
The commonwealth's fiscal year 2104 budget brought an increased
investment in affordable housing, with funding dedicated to 1,000
new Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) vouchers. Yet, the
numbers show it's still far from enough to meet the demand.
According to statistics compiled by MLRI from the Division of
Housing Stabilization, on Nov. 7, 2013, there were 4,222 families
in shelter the shelter system in Massachusetts - 2,122 families in
motel units, with another 2,100 families in other placements.
Bourquin explains that, over the past several years, Massachusetts
has experimented with providing short-term housing vouchers, most
recently through a program called HomeBASE. It initially provided
for three-year vouchers, with the idea that families who qualify
would be able to save up to afford housing on their own after three
years. Meanwhile, lawmakers slashed employment services programs at
the same time that help people increase their incomes. Legislators
lowered the voucher timeframe to two years, the following year.
Many HomeBASE families saw their terms expire this past July,
forcing at least 241 of them (as of early November) back into
The only silver lining: MLRI successfully advocated for language
in the FY 2014 budget, which allowed families whose HomeBASE rental
assistance expired to fast track into the shelter system, avoiding
the burdensome requirements described above. Still, hardships
remain due to the imperfect system.
Hirsch described what happened to one Boston family, which found
out that their subsidy was ending only the day before. "They told
[the mother] to get two trash bags of stuff, because that's all you
can have in shelter, and leave the rest behind and go into shelter
with your children," Hirsch says. "She was actually placed in
Leominster from Boston. It's still devastating for her family. She
had to leave her job, and her children were ripped from their
Mortar for the bricks
The MLRI's Homelessness Crisis Response Project is confronting
these hardships head-on each day, even when it's not directly
involved. "We, here, do some legal advocacy. But we are a huge
resource for other legal service programs working with these
families," explains MLRI Executive Director Georgia Katsoulomitis.
"Ruth and Liza are the go-to people for how this state is
addressing this crisis."
The MBF grant has directly contributed to this effort by helping
to ensure it can keep its knowledgeable and dedicated attorneys on
staff. Grant money also contributes to MLRI's systemic advocacy on
Beacon Hill, where they're striving to make sure all homeless
families end up in a better place than shelter. Their success with
getting HomeBASE families fast-tracked into shelters is one example
of the small victories MLRI and other housing advocates have been
able to achieve.
This year, the Legislature also funded the Seven Day Temporary
Emergency Accommodation (SDTEA) program, which gives families who
are denied by DHCD access to a backup shelter system for seven days
if they make a credible statement that they have no place to sleep
that night with their children. Bourquin estimates the program has
helped keep about 300 families from sleeping on the streets since
it took effect on Sept. 3.
But they fear it's another short-term fix that won't stem the tide
of family homelessness in the long run.
"[The SDTEA program] has helped, but the numbers show that there
are still families staying in places not meant for human
habitation," says Hirsch, who cited records showing that 72
families slept in such places in September, even with the program
It may not even stem the tide past this month; Bourquin says that
the $500,000 earmarked for the program is expected to run out in
December. It means MLRI's most pressing need for now is to obtain
additional funding for the SDTEA program to extend it at least
through the coldest months.
In addition, MLRI will be advocating for the state to increase the
rental voucher program. They also point out that while the Patrick
administration has tried to make further investments in state
public housing, there are many units of existing units sitting
vacant because they need maintenance.
"Here we have all these families in motels, and we have vacant
housing units," says Bourquin. "We have to get them back
The bottom line, according to MLRI, is that the solutions that
have been tried thus far haven't worked because they're missing the
big picture. A family may get a roof over their heads temporarily
with a shelter placement, but what good is it if it takes them away
from a job, food and other basic necessities.
"There are all these little bricks, all these little programs out
there, but no mortar between the bricks," says Katsoulomitis. "Look
at a family holistically. What does a homeless family need? What
are the crises they are facing? … If we spend dollars more
thoughtfully, I think we can make change in the commonwealth,
The Massachusetts Bar Foundation, the philanthropic partner of
the Massachusetts Bar Association, is the commonwealth's premier
legal charity. It represents the commitment of the lawyers and
judges of Massachusetts to improve the administration of justice,
to promote an understanding of the law and to ensure equal access
to the legal system for all residents of the commonwealth,
particularly those most vulnerable. For more information on how to
donate or get involved, please visit www.massbarfoundation.org.