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Massachusetts' shelter system is at capacity as family homelessness hits record high


Earlier this month, for the first time, the state shelter system in Massachusetts ran out of room for families without a place to live. More than 200 families are now on a waitlist, and that's despite the fact that the state is converting thousands of hotel rooms into shelter space. And as Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WBUR reports, giving one family a roof over their heads sometimes means putting another out on the street.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: I met Brenda Banville in a McDonald's parking lot about an hour west of Boston. She's 61 and lives in a car with her grown son. She peers in the back window.

BRENDA BANVILLE: I got my important papers, a fan and some food back there, but there's none.

EMANUEL: You're out of food?


EMANUEL: At night, she says, she reclines the passenger seat.

BANVILLE: I sleep on this side with my coat for a pillow.

EMANUEL: Inside the car, Banville tells me she and her son were living in a roadside motel. They could just barely afford it between her disability checks and her son delivering food for an app. But everything changed in September. The cost of their room shot up, and the motel started charging weekly rather than nightly.

BANVILLE: They wanted 700 and I think $78. We didn't have it because we were paying nightly, so we had to leave. We had to leave.

EMANUEL: Soon, Banville realized nearly all the rooms in the motel had been rented to the state of Massachusetts to be used as a family shelter. About a year ago, when the state ran out of traditional shelter units, it began filling the gap with hotel and motel rooms. Now it's renting more than 3,800 rooms. Experts say this has disrupted motel markets, sending prices up and pushing folks out of motels and into homelessness.

STEVE BERG: This is something we have worried about.

EMANUEL: Steve Berg is with the National Alliance to End Homelessness. He says converting hotels into homeless shelters is a decades-old idea, but it only became widespread during the pandemic lockdowns. With tourism at a standstill and hotels empty, it worked. Now, places still use this strategy, from Maine to California, but the dynamics are more complicated, with lots of jockeying for limited space.

BERG: The problem is there's not enough housing for everyone, and so whoever gets it is at the expense of someone else who doesn't get it and has to go live someplace worse.

EMANUEL: Berg says this challenge is particularly acute in parts of the country where the migrant population is spiking.

BERG: If you suddenly add a whole bunch of new people, that's going to mean somebody's got to make decisions about who isn't going to get the help.

EMANUEL: In Massachusetts, more than half the parents and children in the shelter system are new arrivals. Governor Maura Healey has begged for federal help and has created a waitlist for shelter. Her office says it works to make sure shelter sites don't displace motel occupants, but it's often up to hotel and motel owners. Noah Bombard is with the state agency that oversees family shelter.

NOAH BOMBARD: The hotel tells us, you know, we have, you know, 20 rooms, 30 rooms, whatever, available. And the state says, we'll take them.

EMANUEL: Hotel owners I spoke with say some are charging the state under market, since they can now get full occupancy for months on end. But others are capitalizing on the state's desperate need for shelter, bumping up prices. Massachusetts spends as much as $10,000 a month for each family in a motel room. Some of that money goes to things like food, but most of it goes to renting the room. If a longtime occupant is pushed out, Bombard says the state would look for alternative arrangements.

BOMBARD: I think each situation would probably be unique, and we'd have to, you know, analyze what was in front of us.

EMANUEL: Despite contacting town and state officials for nearly three months, Brenda Banville and her son are still living in their car. She says she understands the need to expand the family shelter system, and she feels for the migrants fleeing difficult situations.

BANVILLE: You know, they came here to be safe, and so we're trying to help them, but I need help.

EMANUEL: She says she wishes the system wasn't pitting homeless families against people who are barely making ends meet.

For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gabrielle Emanuel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]