Crisis in Massachusetts, Vermont spurred by spike in housing costs, migrant arrivals
State-funded shelters for homeless people in Massachusetts are experiencing an unprecedented rise and have reached what officials say is their absolute capacity.
Meanwhile, the bordering state of Vermont is also experiencing a peak of homelessness — nearly 3,000 people are in motels — mostly because of a lack of affordable housing.
The Green Mountain State has the second highest per capita rate of homelessness in the United States behind only California, according to data from the US Housing and Urban Development Department.
The unprecedented increase in the number of families experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts is being driven by high housing costs and arrivals of migrants, said Kevin Connor, a spokesman for the executive office of Housing and Livable Communities, in a statement.
In Vermont, officials say homelessness is also being spurred by high housing costs.
Massachusetts is putting homeless people in state-run shelters and hotels and motels, and families are turning to hospital emergency rooms for shelter as they await space in shelters.
Some 3,530 families have been placed in emergency shelters around the state; another 1,405 families are in overflowing hotels and motels. The emergency family shelters haven't seen such a high number of occupants since October 2014, say state officials. Currently, families are spending an average of more than one year in the shelters.
"These are levels that our agency hasn't seen since World War II," Larry Seamans, CEO and president of FamilyAid, told Boston radio station WBUR. FamilyAid is a nonprofit organization that serves the Greater Boston area.
Seamans said roughly a third of the households in the facility's units are new arrivals. He said families have been given a bus ticket by other parties and "arrive in our city, in our communities, at night with nothing but the clothes on their back".
Under a 1983 law, Massachusetts is required to provide shelter to eligible families. Some cities, like New York and Washington DC, have "right-to-shelter" measures, but Massachusetts is the only state with such a law.
Massachusetts officials said they are seeking to provide more space for homeless families and children through an Emergency Assistance program. Emergency Assistance is one of the six administered programs started by the Department of Housing and Community Development to provide specific aid to families and pregnant women, apart from short-term and safe accommodation.
The program receives federal and state funding and collaborates with community-based housing providers and nonprofit regional agencies.
Massachusetts has tightened the requirement for shelter applications since 2012, and the state also limited the use of hotels and motels in 2015.However, more and more families were reporting difficulties in finding secure accommodation because of high housing costs, growth in immigration and the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, families who don't qualify for state shelter still needed help, so they have had to rely on relatives and friends, which means the current data on homelessness is still under-counted, officials said.
By last year, the rural state of Vermont, with a population smaller than any but Wyoming, had risen to the top of two national rankings: It had the second-highest rate of homelessness per capita in the nation after California but also the lowest rate of homeless people living outdoors. About 2 percent of Vermonters were homeless and living outdoors, according to state data, while California has a rate of 67 percent unsheltered.
In 2022, Vermont lawmakers approved major investments to add more affordable housing to the market by building 800 new low-cost apartments, and have another 800 currently under construction, according to Republican Governor Phil Scott. He said the state helped 1,300 families transition out of homelessness last year.
"We know some of the approaches taken during the pandemic are not sustainable, which is why, again, we need to focus on permanent housing options," Jason Maulucci, Scott's press secretary, wrote in an email.
During the pandemic, the state dramatically increased its motel program for the homeless with the help of federal COVID-19 relief dollars.
Between March 2020 and March 2023, Vermont spent $118 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and $190 million in federal money altogether, to house people in hotels, expanding the program that had long provided shelter in motels and hotels in snowy or frigid weather.
In the first year of the expanded program, the number of people in Vermont counted as homeless more than doubled, to 2,590 in 2021 from 1,110 in 2020. In the most recent tally, completed in January, the total jumped to 3,295, in part because the hotel program made people easier to count but also because of the continuing housing crisis, with higher rents and fewer vacant apartments.
But funds to put the homeless in hotels ran out. The end date for the funding of hotels was postponed in March, at a cost to the state of $7 million to $10 million per month. On June 1, the expulsions began. An estimated 800 people statewide were turned out from hotel rooms that day.
A second wave of evictions was on July 1. It affected 2,000 or so people.
But Vermont's Democrat-controlled legislature and the governor extended the program for those 2,000 people. The latest extension would allow the most vulnerable Vermonters to stay in motels until April, or until they find housing, if they contribute 30 percent of their income to help pay for their stays.
The extension decision came too late for the 800 people who had already been evicted. Most shelters were full. Across the state, social service workers handed out camping equipment and free tents to people.