Dot families given most help from MetroHousing/Boston last year

During last year, Dorchester households accounted for the largest share of assistance from a program aimed at preventing homelessness, according to a recent report.

Metro Housing/Boston detailed the 2017 numbers behind its Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, a state funded initiative that tries to keep vulnerable people in their homes with rent assistance for low-income families, last week.

The non-profit worked with 1,500 families around the greater Boston area last year, offering nearly $4 million in aid. Of that, $1.3 million went to 525 Dorchester families, by far the highest percentage of recipients in the region.

Executive Director Chris Norris noted that the outlay for Dorchester homes last year was not a new trend. “Consistently, year to year, Dorchester has the highest number of families in our program,” he said.

To qualify for RAFT, families have to be earning less than 50 percent of area median income, but the majority of families currently in the program are making less than 30 percent, or roughly $28,000 for a family of three.

“The majority of funds go to rent arrears to keep people in the same place,” said Norris. “Otherwise they usually go toward first and last month’s rent and security deposits, which can be obstacles for families just scraping by. All RAFT does is help them get over that hump.”

By taking the specter of homelessness out of the picture, RAFT also relieves a burden of anxiety and helps families avoid the emotional and psychological trauma that accompanies eviction, added Norris. “It allows kids to stay in their current schools; it allows folks to stay in the community they already live and work in.”

According to the report, 92 percent of households receiving funding were headed by women. One of them, Morrissa, a single mother of two, had been living in Quincy with her boyfriend, the father of her infant child. But when the relationship changed, she suddenly found herself looking for a new place to live.

“I’ve been staying with friends in Beverly since then,” she said. “I was still on maternity leave so I didn’t have any income, which made it impossible to find an apartment.”

Since Morrissa works in Braintree, she knew the temporary living situation was unsustainable. “It’s just a hassle if your day starts at five in the morning and you’ve got to get into Boston, fighting traffic the whole way. On top of that, the kids’ school and babysitter are an hour away.”

After a referral through Quincy Community Action Programs (QCAP), Morrissa worked with her RAFT case manager, Darnell Wallace, to find herself a new apartment in Dorchester’s Grove Hall neighborhood, with the program providing assistance with her rent.

An important part of the process was not being afraid to ask for help, said Morrissa. “It’s always a stigma to go in and ask for help. It’s embarrassing, and you feel like you might be treated differently. But they were all super nice and helpful.”

Wallace said that eliminating this uneasiness from the start is key for each of his case referrals. “One of the things we focus on is destroying that stigma right at the beginning of the conversation, and making sure they know that this isn’t something to label you as,” he explained. “Right away, I say to each person, ‘Listen, I want you to be real with me.’ And that makes it a lot easier going forward.”

By preventing homelessness on a broad scale, director Norris said the program saved the state upwards of $31 million. “It costs $36,000 to keep a family in a shelter for a year, compared to $2,600, which was the average amount we provided families to help secure a lease,” he said.

“Assuming these low income families would have otherwise been evicted and forced into a shelter, that’s how much more it would have cost. The difference is enormous.”

Through further investment by the state, the RAFT program assisted 60 percent more families last year than it did four years ago. This increase is expected to parallel rising costs of living in Boston, which has become one of the most expensive cities in the country.

According to a Boston Foundation report released last November, 54 percent of renter households now pay more than 30 percent of their gross income in rent, the highest percentage on record.