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Homeless family housing costs taxpayers nearly $1 million per week

Homeless housing run by the Commonwealth’s emergency shelter program has crept up to near-record levels in August, but City of Boston officials said they would like to shut down a part of the program that places homeless families into motels.

As of Wednesday, 1,801 families were in motels funded by the Commonwealth, higher than about 1,700 families in motels in Aug. 2012.

“It was more than we expected in terms of the number of people applying and entering the emergency shelter system [this summer],” said Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. “It [a shutdown of the motel program next summer] is a major challenge … but we’re hoping the numbers will taper off, so that [the shutdown] is still our goal.”

Based on the $82 average nightly cost to house a family in a motel, the state paid just short of $146,000 for the families’ shelter on Tuesday. If the number stays consistent for the week, the weekly cost on tax funds is more than $1 million.

Though only the component of the program that houses families in motels may close down, some advocacy groups and shelter owners said the caseload is too heavy to close down anything in the near future.

“I don’t think it [the shutdown] will happen,” said Trudy Bartlett, director of Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association Emergency Family Shelter. “We’re full. We’re always full … and the people that come through don’t usually have skills. They don’t have a GED. They’ll never make it without a subsidy.”

Homes for Families Executive Director Libby Hayes said she doubts the motel-housing program could close by June 2014, but her main concern is having the program acquire and manage higher-quality properties for families.

“The number one solution we need is more housing,” she said. “We have a shortage of housing in general, so we need an aggressive housing agenda, which is cheaper than hotels. We need to be spending that money differently.”

Several officials, shelter owners, and advocacy groups said taking care of those already homeless was important, but a bigger issue for them was preventing homelessness in the first place. In addition to the Commonwealth-run Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, shelters work to get homeless children out of the poverty cycle.

“You need to address the issues that brought people on the doorstep in the first place,” said David Tavares, program director of the Families in Transition shelter in Boston. “That way, when a family does secure permanent housing, it helps their chance of being able to maintain it. I don’t believe housing in and of itself is the essential issue. There are bigger issues behind it.”

Regardless of whether the motel-housing program closes next summer, Gornstein said the state has done much good and will continue to help the homeless through programs such as RAFT.

“We have helped thousands of families get back on their feet and get into affordable, permanent housing,” he said. “We’ve prevented thousands of families from becoming homeless in the first place … the approach we’ve been using has helped thousands of families. We just need to keep at it and continue our efforts going forward through our variety of resources.”

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