Massachusetts’ emergency homeless shelters are overtaxed and overcrowded. There were more than 4,500 families in the emergency assistance shelter system as of Wednesday, including more than 1,000 families living in state-contracted motels. Hospitals like Boston Medical Center continue to report that homeless people, often newly arrived immigrants, are showing up at night without medical needs because they have nowhere to sleep.
Longtime residents challenged by the state’s expensive housing supply and the winding down of pandemic-era assistance are being joined by an influx of new immigrants, many drawn by Massachusetts’ law guaranteeing a right to housing to families with children who are lawfully present. Massachusetts is the only state with a right-to-shelter law, though a similar law exists in New York City. While this may be the right thing to do for humanitarian reasons, there is a need for funding and creative solutions to manage the growing need.
Governor Maura Healey’s spokesperson Karissa Hand said the emergency assistance shelter system has had to expand each month since Healey took office to meet the increased need. “With rising housing costs and a steady flow of new arrivals to our state, it has been a challenge to add capacity fast enough to shelter all families seeking assistance,” Hand said in a statement.
Healey recently created a new “Incident Command Structure,” coordinating representatives of several state agencies to address the shelter crisis. Key players are coming on board this month, with Housing and Livable Communities Secretary Ed Augustus sworn in June 1 and Cristina Aguilera Sandoval becoming executive director of the Office for Refugees and Immigrants on June 16. Two experienced immigrant advocates — Rian Immigrant Center’s Ronnie Millar and attorney Susan Church — joined the Office for Refugees and Immigrants in May.
On Thursday, Augustus said the administration is working across agencies with daily phone calls to ensure the state is using all available tools “to try to identify and meet the very diverse, very unique needs” of each homeless population and get people rehoused quickly. He said the state would seek to take advantage of any available federal resources.
There is no magic bullet solution to the shelter overload, barring the creation of far more housing. But city, state, and federal governments need to work together and with private organizations to develop solutions tailored to specific populations.
One prominent need is for help housing new arrivals — often immigrants seeking asylum who are awaiting immigration proceedings. Because of current US immigration policies, these immigrants are legally allowed into the country but must wait months for the US government to grant them work authorization. That leaves families in limbo without the ability to legally earn money to pay rent.
The real solution is for the federal government to expedite the processing of work applications, since many individuals want to work and there are employers who desperately need them. In the meantime, state government can work with private organizations that help immigrants learn English, find child care, connect with potential future employers, and find landlords willing to accept them as tenants.
Religious and charitable institutions have long coordinated efforts to sponsor refugees, and these heroic efforts are ongoing. Catholic Charities Boston developed a “welcome circles” model where groups of volunteers adopt newly arrived families and support them for a period of time, using personal contacts to help the families find housing, pay rent, obtain furniture, and get settled. Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts helps resettle hundreds of refugees annually, developing relationships with local landlords and renting apartments for new arrivals.
But the solution cannot be solely reliant on private philanthropy and ad hoc efforts by underresourced nonprofits. Immigrant advocates are urging state government to set up welcome centers, where new arrivals could be immediately signed up for any benefits for which they are eligible, connected with medical care and community-based services, and sent to an emergency shelter if needed. Ideally, a welcome center could be connected to a temporary shelter that would house people until a longer term placement is found or, if they arrive overnight, until they can be administratively processed. Municipal governments must work closely with state officials and avoid putting up unnecessary barriers to having shelters in their communities.
While there may be some appeal to creating a separate housing system for recent arrivals to better tailor services, prior attempts at creating parallel emergency shelter systems had mixed results. Evacuees from Hurricane Maria were placed in hotels in 2018 only to find themselves stranded there for months facing regular threats of eviction as deadlines imposed by federal and state programs were extended at the last minute. The Baker administration this winter opened an emergency intake center in Devens, meant to house shelter-seekers for a few days, but advocates for homeless individuals criticized its barrack-like communal living conditions. It has since been replaced by a center at a Concord hotel.
Housing challenges are not related solely to immigrants but are evident throughout the shelter system. The state has a separate network of emergency housing for victims of domestic violence. Safe Passage in Northampton recently closed its six-family shelter because, executive director Marianne Winters said, a communal living shelter in a city with little affordable housing was no longer financially viable or helpful. The building opened in 2002 as a short-term safe place for victims, but the average stay jumped from 60 days to 1.3 years, with traumatized families living in close quarters unable to find new homes. Winters said Safe Passage will instead focus on advocacy and programs that help people find economic stability and appropriate living solutions.
Vitally, there needs to be more done to help people leave the shelter system. This includes a strong investment in the HomeBASE program, which helps homeless families pay apartment deposits, rent stipends, and utility costs. State Senator Lydia Edwards, who cochairs the Legislature’s Housing Committee, said other solutions could include tax incentives for landlords who accept tenants from a shelter or an expansion of a Boston pilot program that paired vulnerable people with a landlord and social worker. The state could use empty dormitories in the summer or hotels off-season.
As Edwards said, “If you’re going have a right to something, you need to have the infrastructure and funding to implement that.”
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