State regulation gone awry as housing crisis declared an emergency

Hundreds of families in emergency shelter hotels have been placed far away from their homes despite state regulations requiring them to be placed within 20 miles.

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More than 1,700 families are currently living in emergency shelter hotel rooms across the state, with many from Massachusetts living extremely far away from their home communities — which is against state regulations.

As the housing crisis stretches on, with an emergency being declared Tuesday, we're seeing more and more of those families being placed 50 miles — in some cases, more than 100 miles — away from their homes. For many who are trying to get back on their feet, that distance is the tipping point and has a devastating impact.



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Stacy Julius was grateful to have a roof over her head after being placed in one of the state's emergency shelter hotels, but living in two cramped rooms with her family of five in Chicopee was tough.

"Living in a hotel is not an easy task," she said. "There's limited space. We don't even have ways to prepare or store food. Sometimes it doesn't feel safe because there's so many people here, it's overflowed."

Being placed so far away from their home community of Worcester pushed this family that was struggling financially over the edge. Julius said they couldn't afford to fill their gas tank to commute from Chicopee to Worcester for work or to get their kids to school each day when they were first placed in the hotel.

"It's been devastating, financially and mentally, because we're separated from our jobs, not being able to get to and from, not being around anyone that we know or anything that we know," said Julius.

Her family isn't alone. Despite state regulations requiring families to be placed within 20 miles of their home community, data obtained from the state shows that's not happening for hundreds of families.

In mid-June, 1,185 families were living in emergency assistance hotels, with 418, or 35%, living more than 20 miles away from their home communities.

Our team mapped the data for all emergency shelter placements. One of the worst showed a family from Brockton placed all the way across the state in Pittsfield — more than 150 miles away from home. That family has requested a transfer.

We mapped data provided by the state listing residents who were placed in emergency shelter programs, then requested a transfer to a community closer to home. The map below shows approximate distances based on listed home communities and shelter placements. Note that in some cases the data only provided a shelter placement — those are omitted from the map. Click or hover on a point or route to see details, or click here for a fullscreen view.

Julius told us placing families close to home is crucial.

"We went from a bad situation to a worse situation," she said.

She said she and her husband were working three full-time jobs to make ends meet when she fractured her foot while working as an EMS responder. With Julius out of work, they couldn't afford their apartment. The bills piled up and they lost their home.

When the state placed them in Chicopee, she had just healed up, but that distance put all of their income and jobs in Worcester on hold.

"That was a make-or-break for us," she said.

Laura Massie has seen the impact first-hand as a senior lawyer specializing in housing for Greater Boston Legal Services.

"We have a lot of families who lose their jobs when they're moved somewhere that's that far," said Massie. "We also have a lot of kids whose education is disrupted, there's a lot of folks with disabilities, and we see a lot of disruption of medical care."

She said the waits to get a transfer back closer to home tend to be pretty long.

Massie was the lead attorney in the Garcia case, a 2016 class action lawsuit filed on behalf of homeless families seeking emergency shelter that was settled earlier this year with the Department of Housing and Community Development. In part, the settlement required the state to do a better job placing families closer to home.

"They're going to be doing more to make sure they are keeping families close to home communities, and close to kids' schools," Massie said. "There's also going to be an overhaul of the application process to make it simpler and easier for families to get in the front door."

Julius said if her family had been placed in Worcester, they would have been able to work and be better off financially. When asked what she prayed for when she laid her head on her pillow in that Chicopee hotel room each night, she replied, "Just an apartment in the area where I could go to work every day and make sure that I can take care of my kids. That's what I pray for, that's what I really want."

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities tells us the state makes every effort to keep families who request it within that 20 mile radius. He also said the state is working to transfer families closer to home and increase shelter units.

After a month in the Chicopee hotel, Julius and her family were able to move back to Worcester and get back to work.

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