-By John Lynds
Jillian Serret gave emotional testimony last Friday morning in front of a crowd of housing advocates and East Boston elected officials at a breakfast hosted by Crossroads Family Shelter. Serret and other housing advocates were at Crossroads last week to lobby elected officials like Senator Anthony Petruccelli to preserve funding to the state’s Rental Voucher Program (MRVP)
Serret’s story was not unlike any other homeless single mother trying to raise a child in the state’s shelter system.
Serret, a bright young articulate woman, does not fit the stereotypical mould of how many view homeless people.
Serret lived on her own until times got tough. She was going to school, working and trying to make a good life for her and her child but found it harder and harder to keep up with her rent.
Soon she found herself on the street and later at Crossroads. She received a voucher through MRVP and began living on her own but when assistance that helped her pay a portion of her rent ran out, like it does for many struggling to get back on their feet, she was back in the system and living at a motel and again at Crossroads.
“This is not the life I wanted for my kid,” said Serret. “I want my child to be proud of me and if I had more time on the voucher I could have been back on my feet.”
Crossroads and other housing advocates are asking the state legislature to fund MRVP at $35.8 million so people like Serret, who is currently enrolled in classes to become a medical assistant, can live with their children in a stable environment and not in a shelter.
“We don’t want people to live in a shelter because it’s not good for parents or children,” said Crossroads Director Audrey Savikas. “What is staggering is that in the case of Jillian if she could have just got that extra help for a little longer through MRVP she would be doing very well for herself and her child.”
Savikas points out that it now costs the state an averages $3,510 per month to house Serret, while the average MRVP voucher cost is less than $600 per month.
“Funding MRVP at $35.8 million would help low income working families, the disabled, seniors and others experiencing housing uncertainties to avoid entering shelters and provide a cost-effective alternative to shelter that bridges the widening housing affordability gap for low income residents,” said Savikas
Serret, along with Crossroads residents Zuleika Soto and Kathiana Jean-Charles, all said they do not thinks it’s fair to taxpayers to pay almost three times as much money to house families in shelters and hotels when many could be living on their own and doing well.
Soto said each time she was forced to move from shelter to shelter it disrupter her and her child’s lives so much that it led to behavioral issues and other problems.
“I had to leave good jobs, my child had to change schools or be bussed to other parts of the city, it’s very unstable when your voucher runs out and you find yourself in shelter again,” said Soto.
Funding MRVP at $35.8 million would preserve the 5,100 existing homes currently leased with MRVP in a time when more families, elders and people with disabilities are facing the difficulties of rising rents and falling incomes.
According to Homes for Families, Inc.’s Nilaya Montalvo households currently enrolled in MRVP have an average household income of $958 per month yet the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Massachusetts can be as high as $1,345.2 Rents are significantly higher than incomes, making housing unaffordable to many.
“The state’s family shelter system is operating beyond capacity,” said Montalvo. “As a result of our state’s high housing costs, over 2,600 families are residing in state-funded shelters, over 650 of which are hotels and motels.”
Montalvo added that funding MRVP at anything below $35.8 million will force the state to consider taking back vouchers that low income families, elders and persons with disabilities depend on to maintain their tenancies. “Without rental vouchers, these households are likely to fall into homelessness, causing additional strain on the state’s extremely costly shelter system,” she said.
Housing advocates at last week’s breakfast also asked Senator Petruccelli to consider basing eligibility for MRVP on area median income (AMI) rather than the federal poverty level (FPL). This change, they said, would reflect the differences in rent across the Commonwealth.
They also want the state to help stabilize households by allowing participants to keep subsidies until their income increases to the point where they are able to pay their full rent without a subsidy for six months.
Also another change housing advocates were lobbying for would be to help households gain economic stability by limiting their portion of rent to no more than 35 percent of their income if utilities are included and 30 percent of their income if utilities are not included.