Coronavirus: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Poverty

Coronavirus: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Poverty
Posted March 10, 2020; last updated May 12, 2020

As Massachusetts responds to the novel coronavirus and the resulting respiratory disease known as COVID-19, the Coalition is sharing key resources on the impact of the coronavirus on the community at large, and in particular, people experiencing homelessness and/or deep poverty. We also are advocating with elected officials to promote the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness during this pandemic and beyond, and engaging in conversations with key state organizations and task forces.

Key Updates:

CDC interim guidance for people experiencing homelessness and shelter providers: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued interim guidance focused on preventing and addressing coronavirus among people experiencing unsheltered homelessness on March 22, 2020. Previously, the CDC issued interim guidance focused on preventing the spread of the coronavirus in shelters (last updated March 24, 2020.)

Access to shelter:
Families with children experiencing homelessness that are seeking to apply for Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter only can apply by phone with the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). DHCD local offices are closed for in-person applications and visits until further notice. Please use this number to access the DHCD intake line if you are a family seeking shelter: 1-866-584-0653.

More details about the EA program can be found here:
Get Help: Families with Children and on this family shelter flyer (PDF) from Greater Boston Legal Services. As noted in the flyer, if you are a family facing barriers to accessing shelter and would like to talk to a Coalition advocate, please feel free to leave a message for us at 781-595-7570 x36, so we can call you back.

Shelters for unaccompanied adults, also funded by DHCD, oversee their own admissions processes, so if you are an unaccompanied adult, you do not need to apply through DHCD in order to access a shelter bed. Instead, please contact the shelter directly. Our lists of shelters for unaccompanied adults can be found here.

We know that many shelters are unable to accommodate new residents due to COVID-19 concerns. Here is an informal list we have been compiling of additional capacity that has been added for people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. Please note that, at this time, the vast majority of these locations are reserved for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or who need to quarantine. We will continue to advocate for increased capacity for families with children, youth, and adults to practice physical and social distancing while experiencing homelessness. (See below for more advocacy details.)

Access to homelessness prevention resources:
The Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program (RAFT) provides funding to families and individuals at risk of homelessness to pay for back rent, back utility bills, and other needs. MassHousing has transferred $5 million to DHCD for a COVID-19 RAFT fund. While we are advocating for additional funds for the program (see below), households can apply for current funds through the regional RAFT agencies. More details about which provider serves each city and town and current intake procedures can be found in this summary from the Coalition in English (PDF, updated March 30, 2020) and Spanish (PDF, March 30, 2020) and through the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts coronavirus website.

Evictions: Legislation to halt evictions and foreclosures statewide during this crisis was signed into law on April 20th! It currently is considered the strongest eviction moratorium in the country, based on analysis by Eviction Lab. The moratorium will last for 120 days (until August 18th), or until 45 days after the state of emergency is lifted, whichever is shorter. See the full text of the new law here.

On April 24th, DHCD issued emergency regulations to implement the new Eviction and Foreclosure Moratorium Law. See the new regulations here, as well as access downloadable forms, such as a sample, fillable form for tenants to complete to document their inability to pay rent on time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Please note that if you did miss your rent payment, you also can notify your landlord why your rent is late by using the DHCD sample form above or you can send a letter to your landlord that includes your name, address, and COVID-19-related reason for missing rent. If you document that you were unable to pay rent on time due the financial impact of COVID-19 and submit it within 30 days of when your rent payment was due, your landlord will be barred from making a negative credit report about your missed payment and will not be able to charge you a late fee.

Here is a Mass Legal Help handout on what to do if your landlord tries to lock you out or shut off your utilities without a court order (PDF).

Access to cash assistance and food stamps: The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) offices also will be closed to the public until further notice, so families and individuals who are looking to apply for benefits or follow-up on existing benefits should contact DTA by phone or via the DTA Connect app or website. Read more here.

Most state agencies are following the same timeline. You can check to see if a particular state agency is open or closed to the public here.

Access to unemployment assistance: With the sharp uptick in unemployment, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) has set up a special web page with COVID-19-specific information on unemployment insurance claims. Please note that while DUA highly encourages applicants to apply online, details about phone applications are available on this page. Here is a link to the DUA form for requesting additional assistance in filing a claim due to a disability, language issue, or special need. As of April 20th, DUA has opened up the application process for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). These benefits target people who are self-employed, independent contractors, workers with limited work history, and others.

Utility shut-off moratorium: Utility companies in Massachusetts cannot turn off electricity, gas, and water service for failure to pay all or part of a bill, and cannot send communications threatening a shut-off during the state of emergency. Read more about actions from the Baker Administration and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to protect households from shut-offs.

Access to health care and resources for immigrants:
Please see this flyer (PDF) from Attorney General Maura Healey's office on equal access to health care for undocumented immigrants impacted by COVID-19.
Translations of the flyer into Arabic, Cape Verdean Creole, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese are available. As the flyer notes, immigrants who are not eligible for other government programs can access MassHealth Limited to pay for COVID-19 testing and treatment. Accessing COVID-19 testing and treatment or use of MassHealth Limited will not impact public charge determinations or negatively impact green card applications.

This information on immigrant access to national COVID-19 resources has been compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, National Housing Law Project, and National Immigration Law Center.

Access to emergency, drop-in child care slots, including for families in shelter:
With the closure of most child care programs, the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care has created a list of emergency child care centers that will be making drop-in slots available, with priorities for families living in shelters, families involved with the Department of Children and Families, and families that need care due to working as "
health care workers, essential state and human service workers, COVID-19 health workers, grocery store employees, emergency response personnel, law enforcement, transportation and infrastructure workers, sanitation workers." See their list of providers here (PDF, March 23, 2020.)

Take Action with Us! Advocacy Actions and Opportunities:
  • Families and individuals experiencing homelessness should not have to choose between shelter and safety. There are many unmet needs for all populations, including glaring gaps in alternative sheltering sites in non-congregate settings. As a next step in the family advocacy efforts, we ask you to join us in asking Governor Baker to take swift action to protect children and families experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic: web page and Facebook event. As background, here are the letters from the Coalition and allied advocates to policymakers highlighting concerns and recommendations specifically on the Emergency Assistance family shelter program (EA):
  • Low-income renters and homeowners across the state will need an unprecedented infusion of funds to be able to maintain their housing. We are working to secure $50 million in additional funds for the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program (RAFT) to help low-income households pay for back rent, back mortgage payments, back utility bills, and other needs that will emerge related to the coronavirus. Read our full list of RAFT recommendations and requests, and then ask your State Representative and Senator to do all they can to expand RAFT resources and access. Sign and share our one-minute online RAFT action. While we keep pushing for even greater resources, we are pleased the Governor announced a new investment of $5 million in RAFT funds from MassHousing on March 25th.
  • Renters and low-income homeowners across Massachusetts should not have to worry about being evicted during the COVID-19 state of emergency. Thank you for all of your work to support House Bill 4624, An Act providing for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 emergency, which was filed by Representative Mike Connolly of Cambridge and Representative Kevin Honan of Allston. The final legislative version of the bill, House Bill 4647, was sent to Governor Baker by the Legislature on April 17th, and was signed into law on April 20th. Read more here from State House News Service and WBUR.
  • Many families and individuals who participate in the state's cash assistance programs already live below the deep poverty line (50% of the federal poverty guidelines.) In the current pandemic, participants in the Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled, and Children (EAEDC) programs will need infusions of resources, including increased cash assistance. Please ask your legislators to actively support House Bill 4622, An Act to provide short-term relief for families in deep poverty, filed by Representative Marjorie Decker of Cambridge and Senator Sal DiDomenico of Everett. Under the bill, $23 million would be allocated to provide a one-time payment to each participant household, equal to the standard of need set out by the Department of Transitional Assistance. The Coalition participated in the state's first-ever virtual bill hearing on April 13th to testify in support of the bill, and submitted written testimony to the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities. The Committee reported the bill out favorably on April 16th, and the bill is awaiting its next committee assignment.
  • Please also ask your State Representative and Senator to support House Docket 4950, An Act providing emergency access to equity and justice for all in response to COVID-19, and House Docket 4952, An Act establishing emergency funding for homeless services.
  • In addition, as part of the Emergency Task Force on Coronavirus and Equity, convened by the Massachusetts Public Health Association, we are calling for urgent action from Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and the Legislature to:
    • Ensure immigrants have safe access to testing and treatment
    • Ensure everyone has access to safe quarantine
    • Pass emergency paid sick time
    • Enact a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and terminations of public benefits

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