With thousands of migrants streaming into Massachusetts, then-governor Charlie Baker in November warned that the state would soon fail to meet its legal obligation to provide emergency housing to homeless families unless the Legislature moved quickly to approve new funding.
In response, state lawmakers did nothing.
Now Governor Maura Healey is facing the same challenge: managing a shelter system overwhelmed by a surge of immigration and a simultaneous rise in homelessness, while top House legislators again do not appear to be in a hurry.
On Monday, Healey said that she is asking the Legislature to provide nearly $65 million to shore up the emergency shelter system and more than $20 million for local school districts to defray the costs of taking in new students housed by the system. The $85 million is less than what Baker proposed last year, which a Healey aide said reflects a change in need.
“We will continue to increase shelter capacity equitably and sustainably, recognizing that these families and the communities in which they live are struggling to meet their needs,” Healey wrote in a letter to lawmakers Monday.
The funding request comes after House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who controls which bills advance in that chamber, dismissed as “artificial” a late-March deadline, laid out by the state housing department, by which the system needs more cash.
That comment, and similar remarks by the House budget chief, Representative Aaron Michlewitz, seem an echo of how the Legislature responded to the issue last year. Baker had asked for $130 million, but House and Senate leaders declined to advance a funding bill as the legislative session wound down.
Last week, a spokesperson for Senate President Karen E. Spilka declined to address the March deadline, saying only that Spilka is “interested in learning more” and that the Senate has a history of supporting immigrants.
The funding crunch is just one stark example of how the twin challenges of immigration and family homelessness have converged and forced their way into the top of the new governor’s agenda.
Healey took office as Massachusetts entered the second calendar year of an extraordinary wave of immigration to the United States, driven by instability and dire economic conditions in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Ukraine. The new arrivals — more than 2 million people in the past year, by some estimates — have strained nonprofits and state and local governments from Texas to New York City.
In Massachusetts, the arrival of thousands of migrant families and the rise in homelessness swamped the state’s emergency shelter system last year, forcing the Baker administration to place more than 200 families in hotels. That number has only grown in Healey’s early days: As of Monday, more than 400 migrant and homeless families were living in hotels, according to state figures.
Advocates and Baker himself agreed that hotels were no place to house families. But the state seems to have no other choice. The existing shelter system is operating at capacity. And Massachusetts has a legal obligation to immediately provide emergency shelter to homeless families due to a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law.
Since last fall, state officials have scrambled to add to the shelter system to avoid running afoul of the law. But funds for the expansion are expected to run out by late March, according to officials from the Department of Housing and Community Development, which manages the system.
The system, currently sheltering nearly 4,000 families, won’t shut down; there is enough money to maintain current operations, officials said. But without new housing, the state will have to turn new families away, which is illegal under the right-to-shelter law.
Asked to clarify Mariano’s Jan. 23 comments on the “artificial” deadline, a spokesperson said the House was working “to better understand the needs presented by the current influx of migrants . . . and to provide sufficient support when and where it is needed.”
On Monday, Mariano seemed to change his tune. He said that Healey’s proposal “presented us with realistic options today on the immigration money” and that he was amenable to the pitch.
Some lawmakers have filed legislation to address immigration issues, including one to fund cash and food assistance and another to create a commission to make recommendations on improving the state’s resettlement plans. Healey’s $282 million spending proposal also includes $130 million for food stamps and $65 million for a free meals program in public schools.
Meanwhile, local leaders and migrant aid groups want Healey to work more closely with them than they say Baker did.
“The Baker administration certainly took real steps to provide some assistance, but that administration rarely coordinated with service providers,” said Elizabeth Sweet, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “And that really resulted in state efforts being less efficient.”
Some advocates pointed to one apparent misstep that they say reflected a larger problem. In a letter to the federal government in October seeking “urgent assistance,” Baker wrote that Massachusetts “resettlement agencies” had helped 4,334 refugees and migrants in the previous federal fiscal year. But advocates say that figure vastly understated the actual number of arrivals, adding their organizations had served thousands more that were left out of Baker’s count.
“Whoever was helping him with that letter did not do a good job at all,” said Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute, which served more than 8,000 newly arrived migrants during the same fiscal year referenced in the letter.
“In the previous administration, it felt like there was a disconnect with what was happening on the ground. We don’t want to have that disconnect anymore,” Gabeau added.
Gabeau and other leaders of immigrant groups are also calling for an overhaul of the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants — which provided the low number cited in Baker’s letter — and want a greater say in the state’s decision-making on immigration.
“We want to be at the table,” Gabeau said.
Jim Conroy, an aide to Baker, defended that administration’s handling of the migration surge. “The Baker-Polito administration is proud of its record on immigration — marked by a compassionate approach that included collaboration with service providers, advocates, and local leaders,” he said.
Another issue that municipal leaders cited: Several times last fall the state relocated dozens of families to Massachusetts towns — including Methuen, Kingston, and West Springfield — without giving local officials advance warning.
Those leaders suddenly faced the prospect of enrolling dozens of students, many non-English speaking, in their schools in the middle of the academic year.
“I never try to frame it as a burden,” said Salem schools Superintendent Stephen Zrike, whose district has taken in 27 students from families in the emergency shelter system. “It’s why I work in public schools. We take everybody that shows up.”
But costs are adding up — especially for transporting the students daily from a dormitory at Salem State University where the families live — and it remains unclear when or if the state will reimburse the district.
In a conference call in October between state and local officials, then-lieutenant governor Karyn Polito was asked if the state would guarantee reimbursement for school districts. Her answer: “We will get back to you.”
But Healey’s funding request raised hopes that state support could be on the way. “It’s great news,” Zrike said, referring to the bill’s proposed funding for school districts. “I would hope the Legislature would approve it.”
Some municipal officials and immigration advocates see evidence that Healey will work more closely with them.
Sarang Sekhavat, political director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said conversations between his group and the new administration have “gone well.”
Healey may also be striving to improve relations with local governments. On Jan. 19, senior leaders from the Healey administration and top officials from Boston City Hall met to discuss immigration matters. The meeting came after Mayor Michelle Wu and Baker publicly sparred over homelessness and addiction issues, specifically in Boston’s so-called Mass. and Cass corridor, where drug dealing is rampant and encampments have popped up in the street.
“They’re making this a priority,” Boston housing chief Sheila Dillon said in a call with reporters before the Jan. 19 meeting. “And I’m really hopeful that we can create a system that’s going to work better for the families in the upcoming year.”