BARNSTABLE — Rebecca Roberts and her two children could have been living on the street or a shelter by now. But thanks to help from the Housing Assistance Corporation, they were able to avoid becoming homeless.
"They gave us an opportunity at a time of crisis and that meant all the difference in the world," Roberts said during a legislative breakfast yesterday morning at St. Mary Church held for Cape and Islands legislators and their aides. Roberts was just one voice of many who attended the breakfast to encourage local lawmakers and their staff to remember the importance of homeless prevention programs.
Advocates lobbied legislators for level funding of homelessness programs at risk of being cut in light of the ongoing state budget crisis.
Lawmakers have cut millions of dollars from vital homelessness prevention programs in recent years, and Gov. Deval Patrick has threatened to cut more with his Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal, advocates say.
Of particular significance for local advocates are programs aimed at prevention, like the one that enabled Roberts and her two children to remain in Cotuit rather than moving to a family shelter.
Diane Sullivan, of the Malden-based Housing Families, said preventing homelessness is more cost-effective than putting families in shelters and motels, which is why she is calling for level funding of homeless program budgets in general, but also for some funds now slated for shelters to be re-directed toward homelessness prevention programs. While it costs an estimated $3,000 per month to house a family in a motel or shelter, preventing that same family from becoming homeless — by paying back rent or helping with a deposit — generally costs under $2,000, and that's a one-time payment.
In his budget proposal, Gov. Patrick has proposed further cuts to the Residential Assistance to Families in Transition program, designed to align families with flexible funds to help them maintain their current living situation or move to a different, affordable home. The program budget was slashed from $5.5 million to $160,000 in the current year, and Patrick's budget would further reduce it to $60,000, according to figures provided by the Housing Assistance Corp. But these kinds of programs, advocates say, not only keep families off the streets, they also help prevent the psychological toll that homelessness can inflict, said Allison Rice of the Housing Assistance Corp.
When a family moves into a homeless shelter or motel, there is a spiral downwards within three weeks, Rice said. "Kids are missing school. Mom and Dad are spiraling into depression," she said, noting that the solutions are simple. "The answer to homelessness is housing. The answer to housing is prevention. It's pretty simple."
Rebecca Roberts agrees. A former homeowner who moved back to the Cape to take care of her mother, Roberts soon found herself in the midst of an unforseen family crisis.
Her marriage fell apart, even as her aging mother was dealing with a dual diagnosis of dementia and schizophrenia. As a mother of two, Roberts got a small stipend from the state that enabled her to stay home and care for her mother. But when her mother's condition deteriorated to the point that Roberts could no longer provide home care, she moved her mother to a rest home. "I immediately looked for a job and got one," she said. "But by then, I was two months behind in my rent."
It was a Housing Assistance Corp. homelessness prevention program that kept Roberts and her two children in their home.
"I can never really express my gratitude enough for getting this chance. My goal is to become a homeowner again and contribute to the community that helped me when I needed it," she said.
The House Ways and Means committee's budget proposal, set to be introduced next week, will likely go to debate on the House floor by the end of the month. Once finalized, the Senate will then introduce its proposal. A joint conference committee will have to reconcile the differences between the two versions before a final proposal goes to the governor's desk.