By John Swinconeck, Contributing Writer
Part 1 of a two-part feature
Region – Pearl Dionysopoulos was recently employed and is married with five children, aged 5 to 16. She is not what readily comes to mind when one thinks of the homeless. The family was renting a home in Roxbury. Her husband worked in painting and construction. She worked at a pizza joint in Dorchester.
“Things were good; they were good for a while,” Dionysopoulos said.
Then, an old injury flared up and prevented her husband from working. Her wages weren’t enough to cover the $2,400 in monthly rent. After their second eviction notice, the Dionysopouloses knew they were close to living on the street.
On Sept. 25, they entered Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) offices, and that afternoon, DHCD sent them to the Northborough Econolodge.
“I had no idea where Northborough is,” said Dionysopoulos, and she filed an appeal the next day to move to a hotel closer to Boston.
Hers is one of dozens of homeless families placed in hotels in Northborough, Shrewsbury, Marlborough, and Westborough.
For five weeks after moving into the Econolodge, Dionysopoulos said she tried to send her children to their former schools, but eventually, enrolled them in local schools, including Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School.
“I was upset, because I promised my kids that, no matter what, they could stay in their schools,” Dionysopoulos said, as she began to tear up at the thought of that broken promise.
Between the seven of them, the Dionysopouloses share four beds, two microwave ovens, and two small refrigerators in two hotel rooms.
Some of the Dionysopoulos’ belongings are in a rented storage unit, including photographs and other personal mementos, but Dionysopoulos said she was unsure of how long she could afford that.
“If I lost that, then I really would feel like I lost everything,” she said.
Dionysopoulos said the concept of housing the homeless in hotels makes little sense: “Why would the state pay so much for a motel, and not want to put that money in for an apartment?”
“Most family shelters are completely full to capacity,” said Julie Stanwood, director of Friends of Families in Transition, a nonprofit, volunteer organization that provides services to those living in local hotels. “Motels are overflow.”
The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance places families in motels throughout the commonwealth when shelters are full. Families are placed where there is space, often without regard to where they were living before. As a result, families from Lowell, Lawrence, and the Boston area may find themselves displaced living in motels in the Metrowest, Worcester, and Springfield areas.
As of Dec. 10, there were 28 families living in Marlborough, 20 in Northborough, and eight in Westborough, according to Stanwood.
According to State Sen. Michael O. Moore (D-Millbury), an oversight in communication between DHCD and the town of Shrewsbury resulted in the town being unprepared for a sudden influx of homeless families moving in to the Days Inn. That number has now been capped at 45.
Still, the idea of hosting homeless families in for-profit hotels and motels is frustrating to many in state and local government.
“This was a long time coming,” said State Rep. Matthew Beaton (R-Shrewsbury), during a recent meeting with the Shrewsbury Board of Selectmen. “We’re feeling the effects of the sequester beginning to trickle down. We have a sluggish economy.”
Preventative measures have been reduced, and the state now deals with the homeless in a more reactionary way, according to Beaton. “We need to shift focus away from just housing and look at it more holistically.”
It costs the state about $3,000 a month for one family to stay in a hotel or motel, according to Beaton.
“Clearly, this is not the most efficient way,” Beaton said, addressing a recent meeting of Shrewsbury's Board of Selectmen.
Selectman Jim Kane said that was “down right offensive,” and complained hotels were “just milking the taxpayers’ dollars.”
“Other than a roof, there's no benefit to these families,” Kane said. “I find that disgusting.”
Selectman Moira Miller said that hotels typically charge the state $83 a day to host a homeless family, and that the hotels were “making an exceptionable profit on this,” while at the same time being exempt from municipal lodging taxes.
However, Dionysopoulos credits staff at the Econolodge, which has taken in homeless families for more than a 10 years, with being a shining light in sea of uncertainty, who have provided her with help, company, and comfort.
Local nonprofit organizations, such as food pantries and family service organizations, have stepped up to help, but the host communities’ schools and other services will still be affected. “We know one thing,” Beaton told selectmen, “Shrewsbury will be paying a ton of it.”
Displaced students add to overcrowded classes, budget concerns
As of Dec. 10, 15 students from the Days Inn enrolled in Shrewsbury in most grades from preschool through grade 9, according to according to Shrewsbury School Superintendent Joseph Sawyer. The district is transporting seven students from the Days Inn back to their home districts.
“My concern is that many students are unaccounted for at this time,” Sawyer said in an email. “DHCD is working to determine the status of children living at the shelter and to ensure that we can identify them and ensure that they are enrolled in school. This has been challenging as information from DHCD does not name the children, only the head of the family and the gender and age of the children.”
Fifteen students were enrolled without having to add additional bus routes or personnel, but Sawyer noted that “each new enrollment does have an impact on class sizes that are already too high in most cases. I am concerned that if many more students enroll in our district or are required to be transported, we will need to shift resources from other parts of the educational program.”
The cost of transporting students back to their home district is shared between the districts involved, however, state reimbursement is not provided until next fiscal year.
“This year, Massachusetts communities are being reimbursed at an assumed 55 percent rate on last year's incurred costs,” Sawyer stated. “We set aside $100,000 in the School Department's budget for the current fiscal year for transporting homeless students, before the Days Inn situation was known, so there is a strong possibility we will exceed that budget.”
According to a July update from the state on education aid, the appropriation for homeless transportation reimbursement was funded at $7,350,000, a decrease of $3.95 million.
Sawyer stated: “Payments will be made to districts based on reported expenses on the FY13 end of year financial returns. The final reimbursement percentage in FY13 was 94.07 percent for homeless transportation. The FY14 line item funding will enable us to reimburse districts between 55-58 percent.”
He continued: “ regardless of whether a child's family owns a home, rents a home, or is placed at a shelter, the Shrewsbury Public Schools will do everything we can to provide that child with the very best educational experience possible.”