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Greenfield motels see surge of homeless families


May have financial ramifications for town

Greenfield Recorder 10/19/2013, Page A01

By CHRIS SHORES Recorder Staff

GREENFIELD — In the past month, about 60 new homeless families from all over the state have been sent to live in two Greenfield hotels — while state officials desperately seek more permanent arrangements in emergency shelters for a surging homeless population.

“It’s a crisis,” Mayor William Martin said Friday. He sees the sudden influx of homeless families — and scores of school-age children — posing several pressing issues for Greenfield, including:

■ How local schools will seamlessly serve an increase of an estimated 110 new students.

■ Whether the state will penalize the town for the school-age children who Martin and other members of a Franklin County homelessness task force believe are living at the hotels but not attending school. They think about 50 of the 110 new homeless children haven’t registered for school yet.

■ The potential future costs that Greenfield might incur when these homeless students eventually leave, including whether the exodus will count as dozens of Greenfield school dropouts or if the town will be charged for some of these students’ special education costs until they turn 22. Artificially high dropout rates could hurt the town’s standing in the state, and special education costs already can be a budget-busting headache.

As of Friday, there were 89 families at the Quality Inn on the Mohawk Trail and the Days Inn on Colrain Road, but the number is changing every day, said officials from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Some families are from western Massachusetts, but most are from around Boston and Worcester, where officials say emergency shelters are full to capacity.

The homeless have been placed in hotels in pockets across Massachusetts, including up and down the Interstate 91 corridor.

For how long?

There’s no indication how long the families will be staying in Greenfield and their other temporary homes across the state. Aaron Gornstein, the state’s undersecretary of housing and communitydevelopment, insists that officials are making progress every day in returning the families to their local communities by expanding the capacity of shelters around the Greater Boston area. He hopes it will be complete in weeks, not months. As of late last week, there were 2,038 families placed in emergency shelters across Massachusetts, according to the state. That’s the highest number the state has ever seen, surpassing the previous high of 1,803 in November 2012.

For the past two years, the state has been trying to move homeless out of hotels into traditional shelters or into low-income housing, but with apparently limited success.

The economy has been hard on lowincome families and a tight housing market has made it difficult to find affordable housing options in recent months, said Gornstein. There is typically an annual spike in emergency shelter use each summer but the situation was made worse this year, he said, when federal, across-the-board sequestration budget cuts hit Section 8, a federal rental housing assistance program.

The schools

The arrival of dozens of homeless families has put a strain on towns like Greenfield and on their public school systems.

Superintendent Susan Hollins said that the school department is hiring a fulltime elementary school teacher and more tutors and is increasing its English language learning services.

Elementary-age students are able to walk to Newton School because of its proximity to the hotels. But the older children need to be transported to the middle and high school and the schools are already paying for 15 homeless students who are traveling to Springfield to continue attending their schools there.

“Every school system can surely absorb some students in homeless circumstances and would do so willingly,” said Hollins. “The number of students coming to Greenfield in such a short time with no pre-notice for planning and no funding is very challenging.”

And it’s not easy on the families being asked to move from the eastern part of the state, she said. “We are advised some students, because of being placed in Greenfield, will lose their seats in choice schools,” she said. “People are relocated from their support systems and health care providers.”

Martin, who is also chairman of the School Committee, said that he’ll be reviewing school-related costs in the coming weeks. Although there’s a chance for state reimbursements, he believes the town may end up absorbing some of the costs, including transportation expenses.

As it currently stands, any students who transferred from another Massachusetts district to Greenfield won’t be considered a dropout when they ultimately leave the town’s motels, said Lauren Greene, a spokeswoman for the state’s department of elementary and secondary education.

Any students who weren’t enrolled in another district before entering Greenfield — students who might come to Massachusetts from out of state, for example — will count as dropouts when they leave the town’s schools. And Greenfield, if it is the last community the child resided in, will be responsible for a student’s individualized special education costs.

Too open-hearted?

The state’s housing issue needs to be sorted out without placing undue burden on communities like Greenfield, said Martin. He fears that the state’s laws are too lax and that people from other states are entering Massachusetts borders for shelter — because a state policy guarantees all homeless a shelter regardless how long they have lived here.

“We have all these different (housing) options but we have never had enough for everybody,” said Martin. “Our plan isn’t working.”

“For small towns to absorb homeless residents and issues from larger cities across the state … Greenfield can’t do it,” he said.

Martin said the task force, which was started this year by a number of housing and human services agencies to tackle local socio-economic and housing issues, will be reaching out to Greenfield’s state legislators, Rep. Paul Mark and Sen. Stanley Rosenberg. He hopes that the legislators will help the town avoid state penalties and future financial burden on the schools.

Rosenberg said Friday he’s aware of the situation but has yet to be contacted by any local officials.

The state has been working hard to end the use of hotels and motels, said Rosenberg. But the promising idea to end homelessness through increased housing assistance and residential vouchers “does not seem to be working anywhere as well as people had hoped,” he said.

“They’re just not finding enough units for people to move into. The demand just continues to grow,” said Rosenberg. “Sending people 100 miles away from home is not helping them solve their problem.”

Both houses of the state Legislature voted this week to allocate an additional $13 million to pay for housing shelter programs. The allocations are part of spending bills to close out this past fiscal year and will be finalized in the weeks to come.

You can reach Chris Shores at:cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264