Advocates for homeless families are pushing for a bill that would make it easier for families with children to get access to emergency shelters and child care vouchers. The bill would simplify the application for public benefits and require MassHealth to provide transportation to medical appointments for children living in shelters.
“This particular bill is a comprehensive bill that would address a lot of the safety and security needs of families, particularly when it comes to nutrition and access to childcare,” said Diane Sullivan, policy director with Homes for Families, an advocacy group for homeless families.
The comprehensive bill, H.429/S.94, includes several recommendations relating to assistance for poor children.
“It take a comprehensive approach to helping those that need the help the most – kids whose parents are on some sort of public assistance,” said State Rep. Jay Livingstone, D-Boston, the bill’s prime sponsor. “It really tries to get at the issues that they have often in school by focusing on all the problems – nutrition, housing, healthcare – and trying to find ways to improve each of those things and also make the government more efficient.”
The bill would eliminate a requirement that families spend one night homeless before being eligible for an emergency shelter. It would provide childcare vouchers for families for six months after they leave an emergency shelter. It would require MassHealth to provide transportation from emergency shelters to medical appointments for children under 19, in order to ensure a child has access to continuous medical care. It would require state agencies to do more outreach around food assistance programs. It would require the state to publish a report on rates of school health screenings.
It would also create a working group to come up with methods to provide meals to homeless families housed in hotels and motels.
Sullivan said she was homeless years ago and was housed in a motel without a refrigerator or microwave.
“I was there about three and a half months, and I wasn’t able to cook a meal,” Sullivan said. “We need to be looking at the impact we’re having on the health and lives of families and children that are in motels.”
Livingstone could not provide a cost for the bill. But he said there would be savings. For example, a provision that would create a common application for MassHealth and the food stamp program SNAP would eliminate the need for two different state agencies to verify one person’s eligibility for assistance.
Dr. Megan Sandel, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who has worked with homeless children, told a legislative committee on Tuesday that many families who are eligible for one public assistance program are eligible for others. “However, we also know these eligible families miss out on benefits due to a maze of applications in different places that require them to reproduce the exact same information over and over again,” Sandel said. “This is inefficient and increases the administrative costs of each program while creating barriers for vulnerable families that leave them in worse health.”
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, executive director of the health care advocacy group Health Care for All, said the bill aims to get at the root cause of poverty and help children succeed. “The issues of housing, homelessness, hunger and health care are inexorably linked,” she said.
An estimated 4,800 families with children in Massachusetts are homeless, according to Health Care for All.
The bill has more than 30 co-sponsors, including Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, the House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, which is currently considering the bill.