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Family Homelessness on the Rise Warns Policy Analyst

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A pipeline of poverty is driving many families in Massachusetts into homelessness, overwhelming the state’s capacity to provide emergency shelter, according to Donna Haig Friedman, Ph.D., senior research fellow at the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Massachusetts is not alone. States and cities across the country are dealing with a surge in family homelessness. The 2014 U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness found that the number of families experiencing homelessness in cities across the country grew by 3% that year. According to the report, 22% of the demand for family shelter is going unmet, on average, in cities across the country. That’s true in Boston, where about 22% of the need for family housing is going unmet, according to the survey.

But the situation in the state as a whole is even bleaker. With Massachusetts’ shelters at capacity, the state is now housing half of the families eligible for shelter in motels, said Friedman. But many families are being turned away.

Dr. Friedman spoke with author Bridget M. Kuehn about the situation and what can be done to turn it around.

Ms. Kuehn: What do you think is driving this national trend?
Dr. Haig Friedman: If you take growing income inequality, wage stagnation, and rising housing costs, it is not surprising that family homelessness is on the rise. There is only so long that families with low incomes can make all the parts work.

Ms. Kuehn: What about the situation in Massachusetts?
Dr. Haig Friedman: Massachusetts has a very big income inequality problem. Wages have not gone up for low-income workers for many decades. After the recession, the great majority of new jobs created in Massachusetts were in the low-wage sectors.

As a result, wages adequate enough to live on are not in place for many workers. That, combined with cuts over the past 15 years to Massachusetts’ public income supports—including childcare, housing assistance, cash assistance, and homelessness prevention programs—have left many families in a hardship situation, lacking the resources they need to cover basic expenses. At the same time, state resources going into emergency shelter for families have more than doubled.

The thousands of Massachusetts families in a hardship situation are the pipeline into homelessness. Over a third of families with an adult worker and kids in Massachusetts are in a hardship situation. About half of them are not eligible for childcare assistance or the state earned income tax credit.

There comes a point where things just fall apart. Often these families rely on family or friends for temporary housing, but those situations fall apart quickly. Of families who seek shelter in the state, the eligibility rules are quite restrictive and about half are turned away. It’s pretty grim for a lot of families.

Ms. Kuehn: What can the state do to improve the situation?
Dr. Haig Friedman: The issue we think needs solving is at the intersection of wages and packaging of public income supports. For many families, these resources may fall off too quickly when family wages go up and leave them worse off financially. This is called the cliff effect. Their wage increases may not be sufficient to overcome lost housing or childcare subsidies.

Governor Charlie Baker has made it a priority to do something about family homelessness. He is interested in expanding the state earned income tax credit. Housing, childcare, and homelessness prevention programs also need to be re-resourced. The cliff effect problem needs to be fixed. The solution to family homelessness in Massachusetts will require work on all those fronts.

Ms. Kuehn: What can be done at the federal level?
Dr. Haig Friedman: I think there is a lot the federal government can do. Many of the ideas President Obama shared at the State of the Union address—including offering workers paid sick time, increasing access to higher education, doing things to boost wages, and making childcare affordable—fit into the solution to the upstream problem of family financial hardship.

Expansion of the federal earned income credit was not discussed, but that could help. Federal-level housing assistance and homeless prevention programs are essential.

Ms. Kuehn: What can homeless service providers do to help families experiencing homelessness?
Dr. Haig Friedman: In my research, I’ve found the experience of living in poverty can involve feeling ashamed. The way homeless service providers build relationships with families can address that. When providers recognize the uniqueness and assets of each family, there is an increased capacity for healing and moving out of shame to a hopeful, confident place.

This article was originally published to highlight the May 2015 theme of Children and Families.

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Last Updated

Last Updated: 05/09/2019