When rock bottom isn’t low enough (Boston Globe)

Below is an excerpt from an article published by the Boston Globe on December 9 revealing the drastic measures Erica Buckley and many more at-risk residents went through to navigate the emergency shelter system in Massachusetts. Greater Boston Legal Services’ Sarah Rosenkrantz and Elizabeth Alfred are mentioned. 

REVERE — Rock bottom wasn’t low enough.

Erica Buckley’s family was homeless. She had no income and had exhausted the last of her savings, as well as all the help her family could give. She and her two children had been living in hotel rooms for a year. Moving into her car, which could be repossessed at any minute, wasn’t an option. But even with all that, her family did not qualify for emergency shelter in our right to shelter state.

To do that, Buckley would have to liquidate most of her meager retirement savings, too.

The state denies emergency shelter to any family with more than $5,000 in assets — including in a 401(k). Buckley’s retirement account contained $13,310.49 as of mid-October. To qualify for shelter, she would have to take out some $8,000, pay the 10 percent early-withdrawal penalty, and spend it down, presumably to buy more nights in the small, unsustainable hotel room she shared with Ricardo, 14, Jaylene, 3, and Ricardo’s service dog, Drako.

And for what? She would only be right back in this exact same, desperate spot in a month or two. Buckley, 32, had lost so much already. She just couldn’t let this slender vestige of her old, stable life go, too. Why ever should she have to?

Read more at the Boston Globe.

Prison phone calls now free for Massachusetts inmates (CBS News Boston)

Below is a December 1, 2023 article from CBS News Boston about the new law that makes phone calls free for people who are incarcerated in Massachusetts. Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts Senior Attorney Bonnie Tenneriello is quoted. Prisoners’ Legal Services has been engaged in advocacy on this issue for many years.

BOSTON – Massachusetts has joined a handful of other states in making jail and prison phone calls free for inmates.

In November, Gov. Maura Healey signed into law “an act providing for unlimited free phone calls to incarcerated individuals.” The new policy was officially implemented Friday.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the Department of Correction was previously charging 12 cents per minute for calls, while county jails were charging 14 cents a minute. Whoever was receiving the phone call would get charged.

“No cost calls will alleviate the financial burden and remove barriers for an individual in MA DOC custody to stay connected with their outside support system,” DOC Commissioner Carol Mici said in a statement. “Strong family support helps to advance the rehabilitative process, reduces recidivism, and contributes to successful reentry upon release.”

Back in 2021, sheriffs in Massachusetts agreed to give inmates 10 minutes of free phone calls a week, but advocates have long pushed to make the calls free. They say families of those in prison have had to choose between adding money to their loved ones’ prison phone accounts or paying rent and buying groceries.

“After many years of struggle led by directly affected people, we are delighted to see this pass,” Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts Senior Attorney Bonnie Tenneriello said in a statement.

Connecticut, Minnesota, Colorado and California have also made prison phone calls free of charge.

Massachusetts becomes fifth state in nation to make prison calls free (GBH)

Below is an excerpt from an article published by GBH on November 17 highlighting the signing of a Massachusetts bill that makes prison and jail calls free. Prisoners Legal Services’ Bonnie Tenneriello is quoted. 

Massachusetts this week became the fifth state in the nation to make prison and jail calls free.

Gov. Maura Healey signed the bill into law on Wednesday that will go into effect Dec. 1 of this year. The move is a victory for advocates and legislators who have sought to lessen the burden on prisoners communicating for years — and through many legislative sessions.

“Ensuring that individuals in state and county prisons can keep in contact with their loved ones is key to enhancing rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, and improving community safety,” Healey said in a written statement. “I’m proud to sign this important legislation and grateful to the Legislature and advocates for their partnership.”

State Sen. Cindy Creem and state Rep. Chynah Tyler were the lead sponsors of the legislation.

In July, the Legislature passed a state budget that included a requirement for corrections officials to make phone calls free for incarcerated people, but Healey pushed back to give more time to implement the program. This week’s legislation also makes video and emails free.

Read more at GBH.

For many renters, apartment application fees add up. Some are illegal (WBUR)

Below is an excerpt from an article published by WBUR on November 27, highlighting the rise of exploitative application fees for apartment hunters. Massachusetts Law Reform Insitute’s Andrea Park is quoted. 

Sheila Sanchez Ortiz moved from Puerto Rico to New Bedford last year to start a new life with her two kids. On a limited income in a new city, she knew finding an affordable apartment would be a challenge. But she wasn’t expecting to have to pay hundreds of dollars in fees — just to see the apartments.

“You want to see a place, first you have to pay,” she said in Spanish. “I’d fill out an application, and nobody would even call me back.”

Amid a region-wide housing shortage, advocates say application fees are on the rise, even when they’re not allowed. Massachusetts is one of the only states where it’s illegal for landlords to charge application fees. But with little enforcement of the law, advocates say these charges are becoming an entry fee to finding an apartment.

Ortiz spent almost a year apartment hunting, she said, and paid application fees four times for places that did not work out. Interviews with multiple New Bedford-area renters suggest her experience is common — and some are paying these fees upwards of a dozen times.

Housing activist and real estate agent Carlos Betancourt spends much of his time helping low-income renters find apartments. He said the majority of places he sees charge application fees.

Betancourt explained how it often works: A listed apartment will come with an application fee of $25 to $70 — per adult. And, he said, that’s frequently just to view the place. He remembers attending an open house where everybody interested in the apartment had to pay. The open house lasted three days.

Read more at WBUR.

For some families, the right to shelter isn’t a right at all (Boston Globe)

Below is an excerpt from an article published by the Boston Globe on November 25, shedding light on the experiences of people navigating homelessness and Massachusetts’ oversaturated emergency shelter system. Greater Boston Legal Services’ Laura Massie is quoted. 

WOBURN — On the same day the state’s emergency shelters hit their capacity limit, a letter slid under Stacey’s door.

The hotel where she’d been living with her 12-year-old daughter and their two dogs since the end of the summer was finally kicking them out. Her savings had run out weeks ago. She owed the hotel $5,333.30.

“You have refused to check out and refused to pay,” the letter read. “YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED TO REMOVE YOURSELF FROM THE … PREMISES IMMEDIATELY.”

Stacey panicked, threw up. She had nowhere to go, so she resolved to go nowhere. She already had been evicted twice in less than two years. What could she do but ride out a third removal, hoping to squeeze out every night of shelter before a court made it official?

“I know my actions right now are scummy,” she said one morning, sitting in the lobby as a hotel worker eyed her disapprovingly. “But I don’t like people thinking I’m a scumbag by nature.”

Two days later, a manager showed up at her door with a police officer. She hadn’t been at the hotel long enough to gain tenant rights. There would be no 30-day notice. Her dark-eyed, curly-haired daughter — a clever, watchful child — was in the room to see her mother dissolve again as the manager issued his edict: They had three days to get out.

Read more at the Boston Globe.

Innovative partnership ensures lawyer for women in crisis (Mass Lawyers Weekly)

Below is an excerpt from an article published by Mass Lawyers Weekly on November 10, highlighting the partnership between Greater Boston Legal Services and Women’s Lunch Place. Greater Boston Legal Services’ Nayab Ajaz is quoted. 

An innovative program staffed by Greater Boston Legal Services is ensuring that guests at a Boston women’s shelter have a lawyer they can call on in times of crisis.

Since February, GBLS attorney Nayab R. Ajaz has been on hand to help resolve the sometimes-complex legal issues facing clients at the Women’s Lunch Place. It’s work she loves but also finds “heartbreaking” at times.

“It’s sad to see how people have been failed by various systems or just haven’t been given the information that they needed,” Ajaz says. “But it’s also great being able to correct that as well — to give people the legal help that they need.”

In January, GBLS and the Women’s Lunch Place entered a contract under which Ajaz serves as the dedicated lawyer for the daytime shelter and advocacy center.

Read more at Mass Lawyers Weekly.

Proposed cap on shelters raises thorny issues (Boston Globe)

Below is an excerpt from an October 31 article in The Boston Globe about the overburdened Massachusetts state shelter system. Greater Boston Legal Services Senior Attorney Laura Massie is quoted. 

By Samantha J. Gross and Matt Stout, Globe Staff

As the state’s emergency shelter system inched toward its self-imposed capacity Monday, uncertainty pervaded the state’s plan to cap how many homeless and migrant families it’s sheltering, with homeless advocates urging the Healey administration to delay and a judge readying to hear a legal challenge to it.

The ballooning crisis — and the unprecedented steps Governor Maura Healey is taking to control it — has raised numerous questions, perhaps none more urgent than how the new limit could affect newly arrived immigrants and other homeless families with no other place to go.

State officials said they plan to begin pushing those seeking shelter to a waiting list once the system reaches 7,500 families, which they warn could happen “imminently.’’ As of Monday, there were 7,332 families in the system, half of whom were in state-subsidized hotels or motels.

“We encourage the Healey administration to put the brakes on the creation of a waiting list while additional details of how such a waiting list would work remain to be hashed out,’’ said Kelly Turley of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

“We want to make sure the Legislature has time to provide the funding that’s needed to avoid a need for the waiting list,’’ she said.

The fate of homeless families is far from the only unknown. A Boston-based advocacy group is suing the state to halt the self-imposed limit on the number of families in the shelter system; a judge will hear their arguments at an emergency hearing Tuesday afternoon. Healey is also still seeking hundreds of millions of dollars from the state Legislature to keep the system operating amid a crisis that has no definitive end in sight.

Behind the scenes, the state has sketched out some of its plans for what Healey has called “a new phase to this challenge.’’

Officials intend to create another layer of screening for those applying for emergency shelter, in which health care providers will perform a “medical assessment’’ of families to determine who will be given priority for shelter, according to a copy of the presentation that officials provided to advocacy groups.

Families with infants under 9 months and pregnant women in their third trimester will be among those prioritized for shelter, while those with medication that needs to be refrigerated could also move up in line, according to Turley, who was among those briefed by state officials last week.

Those who are effectively screened out will then land on the new waiting list, though it’s unclear how long they could idle there.

Two family welcome centers in Allston and Quincy, which were created to connect newly arrived migrants with services, will now shift in part to serve those not placed in shelters, according to state officials. Those on the waiting list will also be directed to call the state’s 2-1-1 hot line, a 24-hour system that gives people information about food banks or other basic services.

Until recently, homeless families were guaranteed a roof over their heads under a decades-old law in Massachusetts, the only state in the country with a so-called right-to-shelter requirement. But now, state officials say they can no longer guarantee space for more than 7,500 families.

At the current pace, state officials predict that without changes, roughly 9,700 families could be in the system by January and nearly 13,500 by the end of the fiscal year in June, according to projections shared with advocacy groups.

State officials say they plan to work with families as shelter capacity is reached.

“We are committed to ensuring that families know about resources available to them,’’ said L. Scott Rice, the retired lieutenant general whom Healey recently tapped to lead the statewide response as emergency assistance director.

Even with some new details, it remains unclear what will happen to families for whom there is no room. The state said Monday that when a unit opens up for a family on the waitlist, they will be contacted by phone, email, or text.

But migrant and homeless families are often transient, and advocates fear they could be hard to reach.

Space is already at a premium in a region choked by high housing costs. For example, the Pine Street Inn, New England’s largest provider of homelessness services, expects to reach capacity as temperatures dip.

“We are not equipped or set up to accommodate families [or] children,’’ said Barbara Trevisan, a spokesperson.

There are other concerns. If families seeking shelter must now be seen by a physician — who under state law is required to report suspected child neglect — some advocates question whether that could open migrant families to a Department of Children and Families investigation at one of their most vulnerable points.

“A lot of families applying for shelter are already very afraid. They know they and their children are in a very vulnerable circumstance, and they have a lot of fear of triggering a child welfare investigation,’’ said Laura Massie, a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. “We are concerned it could really make parents too afraid to come forward and say they need help and support.’’

Read the full story here.

Massachusetts’ shelter system is reaching capacity, threatening the state’s ability to fulfil its ‘right-to-shelter’ law, says Gov. Maura Healey (The Berkshire Eagle)

Below is an excerpt from an article The Berkshire Eagle published on October 17, drawing attention to the consequences of Massachusetts’ overfilling state shelter system. Massachusetts Law Reform Institutes’ Andrea Park is quoted. 

While its right-to-shelter law will remain in place, Massachusetts may not be able to guarantee shelter for immigrant families as soon as the end of this month as the state’s shelter system reaches capacity, Gov. Maura Healey said Monday.

There are close to 7,000 families enrolled in the state’s emergency shelter system, Healey said Monday — more than double the number of individuals enrolled at this time last year, and up significantly from the 5,600 families being housed when Healey declared a state of emergency in August.

“We do not have enough space, service providers or funds to safely expand beyond 7,500 families. We expect to hit that limit at the end of the month,” Healey said during a State House news conference. “From that point on, we’ll no longer be able to guarantee shelter placement for new families entering.”

At over 23,000 people, the rapidly growing number of people in emergency shelter housing has now exceeded the population of 262 of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts, based on 2020 census data.

Read more at The Berkshire Eagle.

Stolen Moments (Law Practice Today)

Below is an excerpt from a September 14 article published by Law Practice Today discussing the need to improve employee experiences in the legal services field. MLAC’s Board Chair, Mala Rafik, authored this article.

My associate told me during the pandemic that as difficult as life was at home with a baby and a toddler, she was immensely grateful for the “stolen moments” with her boys and her family. I think about that – about stolen moments – all the time. Time with your family, your friends – those should never feel stolen. They do. Those moments are replete with guilt because there is always more work you feel you could and should be doing. There is always an email or call that needs a response. You’re physically with friends or family, but you’re never fully present. You constantly feel like you’re missing something related to a client or a case, you’re disappointing someone, and if you just worked for one more hour, everything will be better. It never will. What does feel better? Stolen moments. The goal is to make those moments feel less stolen and more normal. As the owner of a small law firm, you have control of this transition.

Read more here.

Restraining a patient is supposed to be a ‘last resort.’ Why is Massachusetts doing it so often? (GBH)

Below is an excerpt from an article published on October 2 by GBH discussing the implications of the use of restraint at inpatient facilities. Disability Law Center’s Staff Attorney Walter Noons is quoted.

Jess Thompson, 27, of Abington views her life in two parts; before she was restrained, and after.

Thompson had been sent to South Shore Hospital by ambulance in September 2020 after staff at an outpatient clinic feared she might be suicidal. Thompson says she was seeking treatment for PTSD, but was not considering suicide in any way.

Moments before the restraint, she’d been told she was on a 72-hour hold. Thompson told the staff she would like to leave.

“I started to walk up to the door and I am bear-hugged by this security guard. I had my arms crossed sort of in front of my chest and I’m trying to free my arms and they had thrown me to the ground. My lip hit the dirty hospital floor and instantly busts,” Thompson told GBH News.

Thompson said more than half a dozen staffers, most of them male, put her on a stretcher in the middle of the hallway where she screamed, begging them to let her go.

Read more at GBH.