From DTA Commissioner Julia Kehoe–
As you know, on January 28, 2009, the Patrick/Murray Administration filed proposed changes to the Emergency Assistance (EA) regulations in response to a significant deficiency in the appropriation for the program. These changes are part of a comprehensive response to provide housing and stabilization services to homeless families, and to transform the shelter system with a greater emphasis on shared accountability and self-sufficiency.
Earlier this month, two public hearings were held to obtain feedback from stakeholders including shelter providers, shelter residents, and advocacy organizations. The proposed changes have been revised to address some of the concerns raised. Some were withdrawn or substantially changed; others were better defined to reduce misunderstandings or uneven application.
The changes are summarized below.
1. Require that client accepts first offer of safe, permanent housing.
The current regulations state that a client loses eligibility for shelter after refusing two offers of safe, permanent housing. The original proposal changed this to one offer, unless there is good cause. Some commenters thought a family should be allowed to refuse any offers of housing; others requested clearer definition of “safe and permanent” and good cause.
It was decided that requiring a family to accept the first offer of safe, permanent housing is a reasonable provision when the alternative is to stay in emergency shelter. In response to comments, the good cause reasons have been expanded and are stated explicitly in this part of the regulation. Housing can be refused if it:
- Requires the parent to leave a job that is part of their re-housing plan;
- Interferes with critical medical needs of the parent or child, including the need to be accessible to specialty medical providers;
- Interferes with the special education needs of a child; or
- Is located in an area where a family member would be in proximity to a domestic abuser, or in an area the family was forced to leave earlier because of safety concerns directed at any member of the family.
2. Require that all families take part in activities leading to self-sufficiency.
The existing regulation describes some of the activities that are to be included in a self-sufficiency plan, most of which are related to housing search. There are no explicit requirements related to other activities that can lead to self-sufficiency. The original proposal included a requirement for 30 hours of “work-related activities,” with an accommodation for people with disabilities, mirroring the regulations of TAFDC. Stakeholders argued that this requirement was too rigid; that it needed clarification for which activities would qualify; and that good cause should be defined.
To address these concerns, the phrase “work-related activities” was replaced with “activities leading to self-sufficiency.” There are now specific references to community service, education or training, and substance abuse treatment, in addition to job search and paid employment, as meeting the requirement. Examples of “good cause” reasons were added, including lack of appropriate child care and transportation, dealing with medical issues including domestic violence and mental health, actual hours spent in housing search, and having a newborn aged three months or less. The shelter would also be required to reassess regularly the re-housing plan based on the individual’s circumstances.
3. Require a specified amount of monthly savings.
A monthly savings requirement is not included in the current regulations, although in practice, it is part of the family’s self-sufficiency plan. The original proposal required families to save 30% of their net monthly income, unless they were in a motel or had extraordinary circumstances. Commenters said the 30% figure was too rigid, did not recognize individual circumstances, and felt that debt reduction should be a higher priority than savings.
In response, the draft regulation has been amended by allowing all or a portion of the 30 % to be devoted to debt repayment such as back rent or utilities. Also, the shelter, as part of regular reassessments of the re-housing plan, can address any desirable changes to the required amount of savings.
4. Do not allow entry to emergency shelter if a household is evicted or leaves public or subsidized housing without good cause.
At present, a household is denied eligibility if they have been evicted from public or subsidized housing for non-payment of rent, or from any type of housing for criminal activity or destruction of property. In addition to the current exclusions, the original proposal broadened this regulation to include any eviction for “fault.” Exclusions relating to eviction were limited to occurrence within the last three years. We also proposed adding an exclusion for families who abandon subsidized or public housing without good cause. Stakeholders felt that many evictions are for reasons unrelated to a tenant’s level of responsibility (loud guests, not understanding the court system), and that people evicted would have no where to go.
In response to comments, the additional “fault” reason for eviction was narrowed to only those evictions where the reason was fraudulent behavior. There would be an exemption in cases of eviction where the wrongdoer was no longer part of the household. In addition, the provision on abandonment has been limited to situations where the departure was not for good cause, and only when it occurred in the preceding year. “Good cause” was defined to include leaving for permanent housing that did not work out, moving to take a job, or leaving a unit where there was a direct threat to the safety of that family.
5. Change the maximum age for an eligible “child” to under 18.
In the existing regulation, children under the age of 21 are allowed entry to shelter. The original proposal changed the maximum age to 17 unless the child is disabled, or is 18 and attending educational or training programs. In public meetings, the Administration clarified that a child under age 21 would be allowed in a shelter if there were other age-eligible children. Many commenters questioned a policy that would send a young adult to an individual shelter, instead of allowing him or her to stay with the family group.
In response to comments, this proposed regulation change has been withdrawn. Instead, the child who is at least 18 years of age – considered an adult in most other contexts – would be required to take part in self-sufficiency activities. This is a positive change which will help to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty while preparing young people to become self-sufficient.
6. Explicitly define “abandonment” of emergency shelter.
Currently, a family loses their eligibility if they abandon their shelter placement – but “abandon” is not defined. The original proposal defines “abandon” as not staying in a shelter for two consecutive nights, or having repeated shorter absences. It would not be considered an abandonment if authorized by the shelter Director, Department caseworker, or for “good cause.” Stakeholders recommended these matters to be handled on a case-by case basis.
In response, the regulation was amended to specify some “good cause” reasons, including dealing with a medical emergency or a death in the family.
7. Deny eligibility to anyone with an outstanding arrest or default warrant.
Addressing an outstanding warrant is currently part of a family’s self-sufficiency plan. The original proposal makes the regulation consistent with state law by requiring EA clients to clear any outstanding warrants within 30 days of being notified by DTA. Commenters stated families should be given the resources needed to address the warrant, and some felt these situations should be handled on a case-by-case basis.
In response, the regulation was clarified to indicate that the ineligibility only applies to the individual with the outstanding warrant.
8. Reduce the period for extended eligibility upon receipt of income to three months.
Currently, a family whose income exceeds the eligibility standard can remain in shelter for the next six months, provided they do not become ineligible for another reason. An extension beyond that limit can be granted in “extraordinary circumstances.” The original proposal shortened this time period to three months, which many stakeholders criticized as “punishing” and “too rigid.”
As a result, this proposal has been withdrawn. The combination of the increased self-sufficiency and savings requirements, and the requirement to accept the first offer of housing, along with DHCD’s assumption of the program, should reduce the amount of time families need to remain in shelter once their eligibility ends.
9. Add legal guardian to list of adults who may enter shelter with children.
The definition of adults who may enter a shelter with homeless children does not presently include legal guardians. In response to stakeholders’ requests, legal guardians were added. No further changes have been made.
The Patrick/Murray Administration remains committed to preventing and reducing homelessness; increasing economic stability; and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Your feedback throughout this process – and your willingness to do business differently – help to meet these goals. Thank you for your assistance. The Administration is in the process of finalizing the language and will file the EA regulation changes this week, with an implementation date of April 17th.