Demand at Massachusetts’ homeless shelters is way up in the beginning of 2014, leading to overcrowding and thousands of families being sent to motels instead.
According to data from the commonwealth obtained by the Wall Street Journal, the number of families placed in motels because shelters were at capacity hit 2,081 last month, a 23 percent increase from January 2013.
After North Dakota, which has been undergoing a massive population and socioeconomic transformation due to the fracking boom, Massachusetts has seen the largest increase in homelessness of any state in the past five years. Last year, because of federal budget cuts, the number of homeless children in the state hit a record high.
There’s a number of reasons why homelessness is surging in Massachusetts. Lingering effects of the recession and long-term unemployment have left many without enough money to survive. The state has a relatively high cost of living. There’s not enough affordable housing. Rent prices have been steadily increasing in Boston, where on average 44 percent of a worker’s paycheck is needed just to cover rent.
Massachusetts law requires the commonwealth to provide emergency shelter for homeless families who need it, even when no shelter beds remain. However, buying motel rooms is actually far costlier than simply giving homeless people homes. Each motel room for a homeless family costs the state an average of $82 per night, or approximately $30,000 per year. The Housing First model — instead of giving homeless people services first and then housing, this approach calls for housing first and then services — is about half the cost at $15,468 per year in Massachusetts, and it is also more effective at ending homelessness.
Living in motels can also be difficult for a number of reasons. They’re often located in suburbs with little access to public transportation and general services. And they can lack basic amenities like a kitchen that families need. “It’s hard to get a balanced meal just being able to cook in a microwave,” Jennifer White, a single mother of four who has lived in a Massachusetts motel for the past four months, told the Wall Street Journal.
Massachusetts isn’t the only place where a surge in demand for shelter has forced officials to put up money for motel rooms. In Washington D.C., hundreds of homeless families have been placed in hotels this winter.