- Associated Press - Saturday, October 10, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - With temperatures starting to fall, nearly 4,500 families in Massachusetts remain homeless, part of seemingly intractable struggle for a place to call home.

It’s a problem made thornier by the state’s high housing costs, the lingering effects of the economic downturn, and a policy under which the state is obliged to find a place to stay for all those who are homeless.

Of the total number of homeless families in Massachusetts, about 3,250 are living in shelters, with 1,240 more placed in a network of hotels and motels scattered across the state.

That’s a decrease from the more than 4,800 homeless families a year ago - when nearly 2,000 lived in hotels and motels and more than 2,800 were housed in shelters.

The plight of the homeless also poses a political challenge to Gov. Charlie Baker.

As a candidate last year, the Republican said he would begin to eliminate the policy of placing families in hotels and motels during his first year in office and hoped to empty the hotels and motels by the end of his first term. During the campaign, Baker pointed to his experience as health and human services secretary under former Gov. William Weld.

“It took us a while to find suitable alternatives for people back in the ‘90s and I wouldn’t expect it to be any different this time,” Baker said.

Baker said he wants to work with local housing authorities, community development corporations, and other service providers to come up with alternative to hotels, motels and shelters for families. He said it’s a goal shared by mayors, local officials and lawmakers.

A state audit released earlier this year found that putting homeless families in hotels and motels cost cities and towns more than $13 million each year in education costs and lost tax revenue.

In 2014, more than 1,700 homeless families occupied hotel or motel rooms during an average week.

To help spur the process, Baker this week named Linn Torto to head up the administration’s efforts to end family homelessness.

“Anything you can do to help somebody stay in the community where they have their supports, they have their roots, their kids go to school and all the rest, in the long run and in the short run, that’s the best solution,” Baker said.

Although he and Democratic leaders in the Legislature share the same goals, they don’t always agree on the means.

Lawmakers nixed a proposal by Baker that would have tightened the eligibility requirements needed to receive emergency housing assistance from the state.

“We don’t want children sleeping in cars or on park benches or in emergency rooms because there’s no home for them to go to,” said Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst. “That said, I think we’re all in agreement about everything else, which is we want to get people out of the hotels, we want them into permanent housing, and we have to work together to come up with the strategies and the resources to be able to support that.”

Baker isn’t the first governor to pledge to find permanent places to live for homeless families.

In 2008, former Gov. Deval Patrick set a goal of virtually eliminating family homelessness in five years. The program was intended in part to better detect when families were on the verge of falling into homelessness and then move in swiftly with aid and support.

Five years later, thousands of families were still in shelters, hotels and motels.

In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh is hoping to create a system designed to more quickly match homeless individuals with available housing.

Walsh says the city wants the system to track housing vacancies and place individuals in them using a centralized online database. He said a key part of the program is an automated “matching engine,” to make sure the city’s most vulnerable populations receive priority connections to available affordable housing units.

Walsh says he hopes to have the system in place by spring.

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