By An Peng | The Sun Chronicle | March 11, 2019
BOSTON — Lois Lee is a doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital. In 2010, she started seeing more and more families with children coming to the emergency rooms at nights, but the children were often not very sick.
Lee found out these families had no other safe place to sleep. They were forced there under a policy to prove their eligibility for state-funded shelters by staying in places not meant for human habitation, such as emergency rooms.
“From 2010 to 2016, the total payment for emergency department visits was nearly $200,000, but most of this was not for any medical care,” Lee said. “This was just how much we charge for the emergency department. But this money counts as health care spending (instead of housing), and we all know that health care spending has been going up and up and up. It seems that it doesn’t make any sense.”
In order to prevent and end homelessness, state lawmakers are joining the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless in a series of key measures advocating equality and justice for homeless people.
Lawmakers’ fiscal 2020 budget priorities are to increase funding for housing and homelessness prevention resources, as well as address the needs of unaccompanied, homeless youth and young adults by raising funding for rapid rehousing from $3.3 million to $5 million.
“Homelessness in the commonwealth increased 14 percent in 2018,” said Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham. “That’s compared to 0.3 percent increase nationally. We have a real problem here: 22,500 people live here without a fixed, safe, nighttime residence. To me, that is unacceptable.”
As part of her efforts to prioritize civil rights and anti-discrimination issues, Rausch filed two bills to protect homeless people.
Rausch said her bill of rights proposal is designed as a statement of legislative intent. It enumerates specific rights for the homeless, including the right to move freely in public spaces, equal treatment by the state and municipal agencies, freedom from discrimination in employment, equal access to emergency medical care, voting, being able to register to vote and several other components.
Rausch referred to it as “the act of living.” It would amend public space laws and protect homeless people’s rights to rest, eat and pray in public spaces. It also amends the commonwealth’s anti-discrimination laws to include housing status.
“We cannot ignore how dramatically homelessness disproportionally affects low-income people, people of color, queer people and trans people,” Rausch said.
In addition, Rausch is also a Senate co-sponsor of an act to provide identification to homeless youth and families. This bill is lead-sponsored by Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, and Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton. Rep. James Hawkins, D-Attleboro, is a House co-sponsor.
Khan said there are significant barriers to accessing identification cards for homeless youth and adults who are under the age of 25. The legislation calls for establishing a fee waiver process and creates a process for homeless individuals applying for standard IDs in case they cannot meet the existing criteria.
A bill to support the Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children program was highlighted by Rep. James J. O’Day, D-Worcester. The legislation aims to increase the program’s asset limit from $250 to $2,500. Louis Kafka, D-Sharon, is one of the House co-sponsors.
Kafka also co-sponsored a bill filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, to protect homeless families from having to sleep in unsafe places. Passing this bill would avoid situations similar to what happened in emergency rooms, said Molly Schulman, the community organizer and legislative advocate of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
“The Department of Housing and Community Development continues to turn away the vast majorities of families that apply for shelter, even though Massachusetts continues to claim to be a right-to-shelter state for families and children,” said Kelly Turley, the coalition’s associate director. “We know that this is not true in practice, and by changing this policy, we can hopefully bring it closer to meeting where our obligations are.”