As the state’s emergency assistance program has effectively reached capacity, the number of families living in state-subsidized hotels has ballooned.
As of Tuesday, the number of families living in hotels reached 600 for the first time this year — a nearly 55 percent increase in three months, according to state numbers.
The Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees the state’s emergency assistance program, said the shelter system uses hotels “when there are no other available options for immediate placement needs.”
Statewide, there are only 3,600 shelter units, or placements for individual families. There are 98 shelters and 14 motels or hotels operating as family shelters statewide, according to the agency, but there are plans to open new sites, as the existing family shelter system is being stretched thinner and thinner with a state in housing crisis, a swell of migration, and a growing population of homeless people.
Massachusetts has a legal obligation to immediately provide emergency shelter to homeless people due to a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law, the only state in the country with such a requirement. State officials are scrambling to add to the shelter system to avoid running afoul of the law.
Prior to the pandemic, a very small number of families needed to be placed in hotels when no other shelter beds were available, officials said.
“Due to increasing housing costs, severely limited housing availability, and new arrivals to Massachusetts, the family shelter system is operating at capacity,” a spokesperson wrote.
Using hotels to house homeless individuals, families, and migrants is not a new phenomenon in Massachusetts. When Charlie Baker first ran for governor, he intended to reduce the number of homeless families sheltered in hotels from around 1,500 to zero. By November 2021, the number had fallen to just five, but the arrival of thousands of migrant families and the rise in homelessness swamped the state’s emergency shelter system last year, reverting that progress.
By November 2022, there were more than 200 families housed in hotels — a number that has grown since.
House and Senate leaders declined to advance funding, proposed by Baker toward the end of the legislative session, to shore up the shelter system.
This year, Healey proposed a supplemental budget that includes $85 million to do the same. The proposal also includes $9.5 million to maintain a temporary central intake center where families can receive a variety of services, including immigration-focused case management and health checkups. This central intake center is located at a community center in Devens, but it will wind down operations this spring. State officials said the funding can be applied to the Concord hotel-turned- shelter, which would evolve into a central intake facility.
The budget would support up to 1,100 new shelter units, and includes $22 million to support schools experiencing an unanticipated influx of new students.
Both the House and Senate passed their own versions of the spending bill weeks ago, with an emergency clause that would send the money out once Healey signs the bill into law, instead of having to wait until an arbitrary date. But first they must reconcile minor differences.