Notes from the Hill

Catholic Input Pivotal on New Shelter Regulations

Numerous phone calls, emails, letters and visits, prompted by advocates for the homeless, and including many Catholics responding to email alerts from the Massachusetts Catholic Conference influenced state officials recently to revise proposed regulations that would have placed undo hardship on vulnerable children and their families by imposing new restrictions on access to emergency shelters.

In addition, testimony from Catholic Charities officials and their clients, demonstrating the severe impact that the original proposals would have caused, was pivotal. While the revised regulations are not ideal, and the current financial crisis and looming shortfall in government funds may result in further limits down the road, the response of Catholics to the call for action on behalf of those in need was heartening and bodes well for future efforts to defend the interests of the poor in Massachusetts.

On January 28, 2009, the Patrick Administration announced a plan to implement new regulations restricting eligibility and tightening shelter rules. A budget deficit of almost $3.4 million in the stateís shelter fund, caused by an increase in the number of homeless families due to the poor economy, spurred the proposals. Yet after two public hearings, the Department of Transitional Assistance either withdrew the shelter proposals or redrafted them to lessen their severity.

The hearings at the State House were crowded with people ready to explain how the changes would hurt families and children. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference and Catholic Charities of Boston provided testimony urging that the regulatory changes be withdrawn.

Judy Whitmarsh, Boston Director of Programs and Policy for Catholic Charities, pointed to the negative impact of a proposal to decrease the grace period by half within which families in shelters must find housing if their income exceeds eligibility limits. She related the story of a former Catholic Charities client, a father with a 10-year old child. After receiving Social Security Income, the father went over the shelterís income limit. Two weeks before the familyís new apartment was available, the Department of Transitional Assistance informed Catholic Charities that this family must leave the shelter. Instead, Catholic Charities enabled the family to remain by absorbing the cost. The state withdrew the proposal.

Another proposal denied eligibility to children and their families who had been evicted or left subsidized housing in the past three years. Whitmarsh provided another story. Two years ago a 60-year old grandmother and her 10-year old grandchild were evicted from public housing because the grandmotherís nephew sold drugs out of the apartment without her knowledge. The nephew no longer lives with the family. Even so, under the Administrationís proposal, the Grandmother and the 10-year old child could not access needed support. The state modified the proposal by allowing families to access supportive housing if the family member who caused the eviction is no longer part of the household.

Other proposals were similarly modified or dropped. A proposal to separate children aged 18 to 21 from their parents was eliminated. A requirement to work thirty hours per week was expanded by allowing credit for time spent searching for not only for employment, but also to include time spent participating in community service, education and training and attending substance abuse treatment. A requirement to save thirty percent of oneís income was changed to allow the money instead to be devoted to payment of back rent or utilities.

Even with the revisions and withdrawals, the Administration still plans to reduce spending on Emergency Assistance by $400,000 before July 1, 2009 and by more than $10 million the following fiscal year. Advocacy groups such as the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless are working with the administration and legislature to clarify further changes before the final regulations go into effect on April 17, 2009.

Without all of the phone calls, visits with legislators, participation in public hearings, letters to the editor, written comments to the Administration, and spreading the word among friends and neighbors the original proposals and their draconian impact on the lives of vulnerable children and families, hundreds more families would be unable to access or retain the safety net of shelter. The voice of the people made a difference. That voice will still need to be heard in the future, especially during these challenging economic and social times.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference is the public policy voice for the Roman Catholic Church in the Commonwealth, encouraging Catholics to write or call their legislators, and promoting the dignity of the human being. Join MCC-Net online at www.macathconf.org or by calling the toll-free automated sign-up system at 866-367-0558.

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