Lowell Sun, July 6, 2009, More families than ever are living in temporary shelters

http://www.lowellsun.com/todaysheadlines/ci_12761026

More families than ever are living in temporary shelters

By David Perry, dperry@lowellsun.com

Updated: 07/06/2009 09:00:57 AM EDT

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Nicole Spencer is staying with her children, Nicholas, 21 months, and Alyssia, 2 months at Milly’s Place, a family shelter in Lowell, after the business she ran with her husband went under. More families are being put up in temporary shelters in the economic climate. SUN/TORY GERMANN

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More than ever, Massachusetts homeless families are ending up in alternate housing, far from the mass shelters that traditionally house them.

Massachusetts’ unemployment rate swelled to 8.2 percent in May, up from 8 percent in April. People continue to lose their homes to foreclosure, and no one knows when the numbers may peak.

It continues to take a toll.

More homeless Bay State families entered hotels and motels and other forms of temporary shelter than ever before. According to a recent Boston Globe report, 751 families, including about 1,000 children, are living in 39 motels in Massachusetts. Taxpayers pick up the tab, which was nearly $2 million last month, according to the report.

The state places families in motel rooms, but in Greater Lowell, Community Teamwork Inc. finds temporary shelter for families in need beyond motels. The state contracts with CTI to house families in places other than shelters, such as the Lowell Transitional Living Shelter, which tend to be “like big barracks” and “are often not appropriate for families,” said Ed Cameron, associate executive director of CTI’s Division of Housing and Homeless Services.

“Renting apartments and putting families in there, they have more privacy and more of a chance to gain stability,” Cameron said.

Which is exactly what Nicole Spencer hopes to find at Milly’s Place in Lowell, one of CTI’s two congregate housing units.

20 people, three floors

Spencer, 21, and her two children, Nicholas, 21 months, and Alyssia, 2 months, have been at the Merrimack Street unit since June 1, with six other families. In all, seven moms, 13 children, three floors.

The Spencers live in a two-room, third-floor unit, sharing a bathroom with two other families as well as a kitchen with everyone in the house. Toys are everywhere, especially in the walk-in closet that has been converted into a playroom for Nicholas.

Massachusetts mandates shelter for homeless families, and Gov. Deval Patrick established the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness two years ago to wipe out homelessness by 2013.

Currently, all 62 units of the shelter overseen by CTI are full, and one is being repaired, according to Cameron. They house 237 people, including 164 children.

Most of the units are three to four bedrooms, but units run from two to five bedrooms. The state increased shelter capacity in Lowell from 20 units to 63 as a response to using motels. (House of Hope has 18 units of shelter housing in Lowell, according to Cameron.)

The average rent is $1,250 a month, and the price includes the cost of heat and hot water in about half the units.

CTI locates the apartments and negotiates rents, and is reimbursed by the state, which foots the bill.

Hotel to shelter

Spencer and her kids arrived at Milly’s Place after nearly two months at the Best Western Chelmsford Inn.

It began, she said, after the Tyngsboro Kirby vacuum distribution business she and her husband opened failed. With income dried up, the couple was evicted from their Lowell apartment. They split after nearly two years of marriage.

“The problem is, nobody has the money to buy $1,600 vacuum cleaners right now,” she said.

“I got lucky here,” said Spencer of her two-room housing. “This is so much bigger than a one-room hotel. But it can be insane here, too. I’m so used to being the only one in a place, and now it’s with six other families. Everyone’s different, and not everyone gets along all the time.”

The recent rains haven’t helped much, she said, and everyone has been dealing with more indoor time.

She is looking for a job, trying to parlay her experience (she managed the vacuum business and was previously an assistant manager at a Dunkin’ Donuts) into a new job, a new apartment. Outside her unit, three banks of well-used computers are available for job searches.

Typically, said Cameron, stays by families range from six to nine months.

Working things out

“I just want to get on my feet again,” Spencer said. “A job, a place, be able to support my family.”

Her husband visits the kids daily.

“We’re trying to work things out,” she said.

Fourteen of CTI’s units are congregate housing, holding multiple families, and 49 are single units, scattered throughout the city.

In the congregate housing, families have private bedrooms but share kitchens, bathrooms, laundry facilities and common areas.

“It’s sort of like a vacation except it’s not a vacation at all,” Cameron said. “Typically, they have no car, have to rely on public transportation, and a lot of these places are in isolated locations.”

Economy driven

The federal poverty line for a family of four is $22,050 for a family of four. As of July 1, to be eligible for shelter, a family of four must have an income of $25.357, or 115 percent of poverty. Before June 30, and the new state budget, the number was 130 percent of poverty, or $28,668 a year.

“This is definitely driven by the economy more than it was a year ago, and much more than five years ago,” said Cameron, adding that five years ago, a person with a family who had even a low-paying, full-time job could find an apartment.

Now, “it’s tough to find a job out there at any income level,” he said.

People with some form of education have been taking jobs with lower pay to keep afloat.

“So the poorest are getting squeezed out of any work,” Cameron said.

‘Nowhere else to go’

A single mother with a couple of kids “really has nowhere else to go.”

Spencer said her parents live in Dracut, but “they have limited room and I don’t want to be a burden. Besides, they raised their kids once. I want to do this on my own.”

Nationally, the unemployment rate increased to 9.4 percent in May, up from 8.9 percent in April, the highest rate since August of 1983.

“I just want to do this once,” said Spencer, cradling her daughter in her arms, as Nicholas plays with a balloon.

“I don’t want to be one of those people who comes back. It’s just that everything happened so fast.”

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