After losing their home in Wilmington to foreclosure in 2012, the DuMoulin Scalona family — Bill, Cherie and their seven children — crammed into one-bedroom motel rooms before beginning an odyssey through the state's emergency housing system, which provides temporary apartments to low-income families in need. The available housing was in Holyoke, more than 100 miles away from their community of friends and family and the children’s schools.
“Just uprooted, uprooted,” said Cherie, describing how officials moved the family. “And here, ‘we're taking you from this side of the state and we're plopping you on the other side of the state and you figure it out.'"
The family is now facing eviction again. Bill's job, he said, was never enough to keep up with bills and the rent.
"I've been trying to work as much as I can, but when you're so far behind and being put out over two hours away from your home origin, it just really set this family back,” he said.
Their experience is already not unique and, as the pandemic drags on, will become even more common.
As COVID-19 drives up the need for emergency housing, advocates fear many more families will have to be placed farther away from the lifelines of their home communities. The state has to piece together priority placements and available housing, so it’s a bit like a “jigsaw puzzle,” said Andrea Park, attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
“People often end up waiting a very, very long time because of the mismatch between the shelter placements and the geography," she said. "And so that is why families very regularly get sent off into different places in the state.”
Since the Massachusetts eviction moratorium was lifted in October, eviction filings have risen back to pre-pandemic levels, with thousands more expected when federal protections end in less than a month. The state is beefing up a number of existing relief programs to try to keep people in their homes, but experts say those resources fall well short of what’s needed, and once a family is pushed out of their home, the cycle of instability can go on for years.
Just over a year and a half ago, Bill got a new job as an assistant manager at a gas station. Before he got his first paycheck, he said, the family was moved from their shelter apartment into a market rate apartment in Holyoke through the state’s HomeBASE program. It's meant to jumpstart people into self-sufficiency and provided the family a year of rental assistance. But soon after their year of state aid ended, the family fell behind.
“You just want to be able to have food on the table, clothes for the children,” Dumoulin said. “If they need $10 for an assignment book that you don't have to say, ‘Oh my God, where's that coming from?’”
That anxiety, said Park, is becoming increasingly familiar. “There's been so many layoffs in the hotel and restaurant industries and people get these notices. They feel hopeless. People returning to abusive situations because they are desperate, doubling up and there's a psychological breaking point, I think, for everybody who knows that there's money owed and they might not be able to do anything about it.”
“Homelessness and eviction can spiral a family in a way that has really long-lasting repercussions on the children, [and] the family itself. It's a really destabilizing force,” said Stephanie Herron Rice, a housing benefits attorney with the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts. “Once a family has been destabilized in that way, it's very hard to get them rehoused in a stable way in a state like ours with such high rent and such little affordable housing.”
Officials with the Department of Housing and Community Development didn’t respond to repeated requests for interviews but pointed to ongoing expansion of eviction prevention and “rapid rehousing” programs.
“The eviction crisis did not start in the state with COVID. The affordable housing crisis did not start in the state with COVID,” Herron Rice said. “[The state is] trying to help people in this. And they have a lot of programs to avoid eviction. But it's not enough.”
The DuMoulin Scalona family has applied for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) — the state’s rental assistance program — which was recently expanded. But more than a month later, they’ve still not heard back. And the family’s anxiety is rising: Cherie said more recently the family got a visit from a constable bringing more paperwork related to their eviction.
Fifteen-year-old Ally DuMoulin has spent more than half her life moving homes and schools and said it's hard to stay focused.
“It's not healthy for your head, you’re in so many different places. You don't know where you're going next. You don't know what your next move is or what your next meal is,” Ally DuMoulin said. ” You don't know any of these things until the last moment. And nobody understands that.”