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An immigration wave at the end of Baker’s term reverses progress toward a long-term goal

A family walked into the Kingston hotel where they were placed by the state in October.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

By candidate Charlie Baker’s own assessment, it was an ambitious goal: During his first term as governor, he intended to reduce the number of homeless families sheltered in hotels from around 1,500 to zero.

There was a fiscal incentive, of course. Before Baker took office in 2015, the state was spending nearly $50 million a year on hotels for homeless families. But his motivation also seemed personal, as if he just couldn’t stand the thought of Massachusetts families living in hotels.

“Many of them are located on busy streets. The parking lot is about as close as you get to outdoor space. There’s no kitchen. It’s just not the right answer for families,” he said last week in an interview.

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Homelessness advocates agree and broadly lauded Baker’s years-long, successful campaign to stop sheltering homeless families in hotels. By November 2021, the number had fallen to just five, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development.

But in the final months of his tenure, Baker has seen years of progress reversed. The cause is migration. As thousands of families have surged into Massachusetts in recent months, after entering the country at the southern border, the state has had no other option than to revive the practice he has long sought to abolish, Baker said.

As of Thursday, the number of homeless families in hotels had crept back to approximately 220 and was trending upward, according to state officials. Now Baker’s successor, Maura Healey, seems likely to inherit the problem.

“Our goal is to make sure people have a roof over their head,” Baker said. “I don’t like the fact that the roof we are providing a lot of these families is a hotel or a motel.”

The problem has vexed Massachusetts governors for decades.

In the 1990s, Governor William Weld sought to stop sheltering families in hotels and Baker himself, the then-secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, helped the administration accomplish that goal. But by 2003, hundreds of homeless families were in hotels again, according to state figures.

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Then the Mitt Romney administration brought the number back to zero, only for it to balloon to more than 2,000 by 2012. Efforts by Deval Patrick’s administration to curtail the practice were thwarted by the Great Recession and budget cuts, former lieutenant governor Tim Murray said in an interview.

The problem’s persistence has two main causes. Massachusetts has both an unusually high number of homeless families — the third highest in the country last year — and a “right-to-shelter” law that obligates the government to immediately house certain families that apply for help.

The upshot has been that when shelters are full, the state books hotel rooms in bulk as an emergency measure. The hope is that the stays will be short, but in practice many families remain for a year or more — crammed into tight spaces, with few places to play, and often distant from school, family, and friends.

During Baker’s first seven years in office, his administration reduced the hotel population one site at a time, setting a deadline to shut down sheltering operations and then sending case workers to help the families living there transition to more appropriate temporary housing.

Meanwhile, the administration worked with nonprofits to expand the supply of shelter units — including apartments and small houses — and tried to help keep families from losing their homes in the first place.

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Baker said the preventive measures — which included giving families cash to pay for rent or utilities — were especially effective.

“It wasn’t like these people had never paid rent before,” he said. “The vast majority of them had always paid rent. But they lived on the edge and something happened and all of a sudden they were about to fall off it.” (Advocates broadly say that hotels are a bad solution for homeless families, but a good solution for homeless individuals.)

During his 2014 election campaign, Baker said he would stop putting homeless families in hotels by the end of his first year in office. That didn’t happen.

But he did make steady progress. During his first 18 months, the number of homeless families in hotels dropped from 1,480 to just over 900. By the end of his first term, fewer than 30 homeless families remained in hotels.

Michael Goodman, professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said the Baker administration “worked pretty hard on the issue” and was also aided by an improving economy.

Christi Staples, the director of a statewide homelessness program at United Way’s eastern Massachusetts chapter, applauded Baker’s success in getting families out of hotels. “This was an important priority,” she said.

A spokesperson for Healey said the governor-elect “agrees that we should be working toward bringing the number of families housed in hotels and motels to zero.”

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Baker said the return to placing families in hotels this fall was a measure of “last resort” born of the overwhelming flow of migration colliding with the state’s acute housing shortage. The move has created tension with local officials. The leaders of Kingston, Plymouth, and West Springfield told the Globe they were given no advance notice before dozens of families were relocated to hotels in their communities in September and October.

Mike Kennealy, the state’s Housing and Community Development secretary, said in a statement that his department “tries to give local officials as much notice as possible … but since these are emergency situations, these placements happen quickly. The alternative is making families sleep outdoors while we wait for a more permanent housing solution.”

Baker placed the state’s troubles in the context of what he has called a crisis at the US southern border.

“The numbers are just nuts,” he said. “We’re talking millions of people, 2 million who [federal authorities] know about, and that doesn’t even count the people they don’t know about. That number was literally in the hundreds of thousands a few years ago.”

Indeed, from October 2021 to September 2022, the US government made more than 2 million arrests at the southern border, the highest tally ever recorded. A Globe review found that no fewer than 11,000 migrants, the vast majority coming from the southern border, have reached Massachusetts in 2022, a sharp increase from the year before.

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“It’s creating challenges all over the country,” Baker said.

On Oct. 31, Baker sent a letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security seeking “urgent assistance” resettling the new arrivals. He asked for expedited work authorizations, increased funding for housing, and increased cash assistance for migrants and the local nonprofits that help them.

He hasn’t received a response, “which,” he said, “is actually kind of surprising. I thought the issues we raised were reasonable.”

A spokesperson for the HHS said last week the department “is reviewing the governor’s letter and will provide a response.” DHS did not respond to requests for comment.

In the recent interview, Baker emphasized that the housing crunch is exacerbating everyone’s problems — those of his administration, town leaders, and homeless families.

“We’ve worked very hard as an administration to do something about [the housing supply], and while we’ve made progress, I’ve said for the past three years: We’re not doing enough. We’re not spending enough. We’re not getting enough done,” he said. “This is a good example of that coming back to bite us.”


Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.