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Unequal Funding Crippling Mass. Homeless Shelters

Saturday, June 02, 2012


Homeless shelters across the state are dealing with a devastating funding gap, which is proving difficult and expensive for lawmakers to fix. Senator Gale D. Candaras (D-Wilbraham) is currently hoping to increase aid for shelters that are receiving the least amount of money, but due to the way the state funds shelters, that could lead to bigger problems.

Friends of the Homeless in Springfield is a shelter that for a myriad of reasons fell way behind in state funding,” Candaras said. The shelter is a key motivator in the senator’s amendment to increase nightly funding for shelters from $20 a night to $30 a night – something she doesn’t see being successful, even though the amendment has passed the Senate. In the next stage, it will be voted on in conference committee.

“They fell under the system of earmarking. The day rate for that shelter was as low as $13 a day, and when the terrible recession hit the homeless population grew higher and the demands were tremendous,” she said. “Last year I was successful with the help of Senator Brewer in increasing the rates, and this year, we’re trying for $30 a night.”

The state’s former system of earmarking which shelters neededassistance had its downfalls and was “used irresponsibly” according to Candaras, and increasing the rate across the board will also be problematic: “The problem with doing that is that the higher up you go per night, the more shelters fall under that rate umbrella.”

A Catch 22

Candaras says that under the new system, if one shelter receives increased funding, all other shelters under it must also be raised to that level. “It then becomes very expensive and very unaffordable, especially in the fiscal times we find ourselves in,” she said. “I’m not confident I’m going to get that $30. We are presently negotiating that rate.”

The senator is also concerned about widening the disparate gap between the most and least funded shelters in the state.

“If you try to use a percentage system or any other system, it would also increase for the ones getting the most funding,” she said. “You’d never close the gap. You’ve got to be careful. In many respects it was easier with earmarks but they’ve been handled irresponsibly in the past.”

The Numbers

According to a chart provided by Bill Miller, Executive Director of Friends of the Homeless, the state average cost for a night in a shelter is $29.74.

Miller says that the problem these figures highlights is that there is no established formula across the state to dictate funding.

“This fact hurts every program because the people who are homeless in Worcester have just as many challenges as those who are homeless in Boston. Worcester’s funding is a tad above the average, but what’s it about Cambridge that they should get more funding per bed?” he said. “It shows that there’s no formula at the state level and no systematic way of working with people who are homeless.”

Miller also pointed a finger at the Patrick- Murray administration for their “systematic approaches” in dealing with this issue.

In Central Mass.

One shelter in Central Mass. has seen firsthand the effects of underfunding. Roland's House in Marlborough is near the bottom of the list in the state for funding.

“Our building is falling apart. There’s not enough food. There aren’t enough beds. They’re still in bunk beds,” said Gwen Tynes, Director at the shelter. “We get some food from food banks and a lot of community donations which we rely on heavily. We don’t have a case manager now. There are safety issues.”

Tynes was impressed with the low figure of $30 being proposed. “I think anything would be helpful. That’s still really low. Anything will help, but still that’s low overall,” she said.

She believes that it’s going to take a lot more than an extra $10 a night to help shelters like Roland’s House.

“We are forever referring people back to the street because we don’t have enough beds. This shelter is not enough in Marlborough, period,” she said. “Not only do we need an improved building, but we need more buildings, and it definitely costs more than $70 a night to house someone with linens, towels, bus passes to get to doctors, and three meals a day.” She added that their funding has remained stagnant for a significant amount of time – something that Worcester shelters have also seen. Although there has been an increase in need, funding has stayed the same.

“I would guess that Worcester would say they’re underfunded because funding has been level for at least the last 14 years, while costs have gone up for every program,” Miller said. “What the state is looking for us to do with this money – no one wants to see warehouse type shelters. Worcester would say they’re underfunded in that regard as well.”

An Ideal Situation

“The ideal is that programs are functioning equally. We have a shared goal of getting people back on their feet and back in housing, and I know that’s a goal in Worcester and for the people running programs in Worcester,” Miller said. “Ideally we would like to see that the state is providing and funding the programs that are helping homelessness. The goal is that we end homelessness. It’s the same goal in Springfield and in Worcester and in Boston. We’d like an equal chance in making that effort.”

Although this solution may increase the funding gap and prove to be a costly fix for Massachusetts, Miller says that it’s better than nothing.

“It’s one step at a time in this work. This is a move in the right direction.”


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