Boston Globe: A state program is billed as a salve for the shelter crisis. For some, it’s impossible to access.

When Elaine, 40, was evicted from her Framingham apartment over the summer, she couldn’t believe she was homeless.

Her husband is disabled, and her 5-year-old son is severely autistic, prompting her to quit her well-paying job as a caseworker for Veterans Affairs last year to help care for her family’s needs.

The money quickly dwindled. The family moved into a hotel shelter in Woburn after Elaine decided they needed some time to get back on their feet.

Then the family turned to HomeBASE, a decade-old emergency housing assistance program run by the state’s housing office aimed at diverting homeless families from shelters or hotels by covering burdensome move-in costs, such as security deposits or the first and last month’s rent. The program also pays for furniture and subsidizes rent for up to a year.

But the state program — once heralded as a golden key to helping people exit shelter — has been nearly impossible to navigate for many Massachusetts residents in need. According to housing affordability experts interviewed by the Globe, HomeBASE doesn’t have the staffing or the financial support from the state to accommodate a need that has ballooned amid the state’s growing housing crisis.

“At the end of the day, I am my own caseworker,” Elaine said. “I have a caseload of one. There is a drop in services.”

To qualify for HomeBASE, participants must earn less than 115 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Meaning for a family of three such as Elaine’s, household income must be less than $2,382 a month.

Elaine, who is using her middle name to protect her privacy, used her skills to navigate the complex housing assistance system and was able to acquire a voucher from the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program to pay for a year of housing — and convince her former landlord in Framingham to take the family back.

But the family is basically out of money and getting the cash to cover move-in fees from HomeBASE has proved difficult. Participants must go through shelter staff or a caseworker to access the program. Elaine lives in a shelter that is staffed by the National Guard and doesn’t have a caseworker assigned to her.

The caseworker who assigned the family to the shelter in Woburn in the first place has been unresponsive. And when Elaine called a phone number attached to a supervisor’s email, the line had been disconnected. She has been trying to get in contact with the program since Nov. 30.

The National Guard members are “great” and have helped connect residents with food and clothing, but don’t know who to contact about HomeBase, Elaine said. At shelters staffed by nonprofit providers, caseworkers are on site and able to work directly with families to facilitate access to HomeBASE.

“It’s just like, where do we go from here?,” Elaine said. “Do I have to call the governor’s office?”

In a statement, Emergency Assistance Director General Scott Rice said the state has “deployed a multifaceted strategy” to improve outcomes for applicants.

But in practice the HomeBASE system has created a process “that does not jive” with the rest of the housing safety net, said Adam Hoole, a senior paralegal at Greater Boston Legal Services. On top of the decentralized nature, the system also doesn’t have enough workers to cover the people who qualify for HomeBASE, said Hoole, who helps clients navigate the program.

“Those initial calls are just not happening,” he said, referring to caseworkers reaching out to possible clients.

Chris Norris, executive director at Metro Housing|Boston, said the number of people applying for the program in the Boston area has dramatically increased in the past year. But since HomeBASE is underfunded and understaffed, he said, it can be tricky to ramp up services. Plus, the state reimburses nonprofits like Metro Housing after the fact.

 “It makes it very challenging if you can’t increase your staff,” Norris said.

The Healey administration has beefed up HomeBASE in the last year, raising the benefit from $20,000 to up to $30,000 over two years with the possibility of a third year of help. And to help more families access the program faster, families considered to be “presumptively eligible” can access HomeBASE funds, while landlords can get a check equal to one month’s rent if they lease to a HomeBASE tenant.

The administration is also working to consolidate shelters and move families to places with providers.

Elaine describes herself as an ideal and privileged applicant for HomeBASE. Unlike some other people she knows trying and failing to navigate the system, she’s a lifelong Massachusetts resident and considers herself an organized and persistent person. She has a master’s degree with work experience accessing HUD for veterans and spent years of her career navigating government programs.

Even so, she is beholden to a system that she believes is fundamentally flawed.

The issues families have navigating the system highlight bureaucratic barriers that ultimately prevent access to HomeBASE and other programs, said Andrea Park, a staff attorney and director of community-driven advocacy at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

“Many of the rules cause delay and confusion,” Park said. “A lot is riding on HomeBASE being successful, and the process absolutely needs to be easier.”

And for Elaine, time is ticking. The rental voucher she was awarded the Friday before Thanksgiving will expire after 90 days, and she is hopeful the property manager will hold the apartment for the family. As of now, she’s supposed to move in Jan. 11.

“There needs to more cohesive resources,” she said of the program. “Aren’t you supposed to be housing people?”

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