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Healey considering emergency declaration to deal with ‘catastrophic’ shelter situation

An announcement could come early this week, according to people with knowledge of the plan.

Haitian families in the playroom of a shelter in Boston on Monday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The state’s shelter system has become so overburdened that Governor Maura Healey is preparing to take action aimed at relieving the pressure exacerbated by an influx of migrants on top of the state’s already dire housing needs, according to several people with knowledge of the proposed plan.

The action could come as early as this week in the form of an emergency declaration, which some shelter directors say is much needed, said four people briefed on the administration’s plan.

The governor will make an announcement “related to the emergency shelter system” at a news conference Tuesday morning, according to a spokesperson.


“There’s been a group of providers who have really been pushing hard in the governor’s office” for such a declaration, said Danielle Ferrier, chief executive officer of the Boston-area homeless services provider Heading Home, in an interview.

At present, she said, the shelters are in a “catastrophic” situation.

“It is not safe any longer on the ground, in our sites,” she said.

Such a declaration would open a path toward seeking federal aid. It also would enable the governor to call up the National Guard more quickly. And it would allow her to bypass normal procurement rules that require a competitive bid process, allowing them to more quickly hire vendors and contractors or rent places for people to stay.

A declaration would enable the governor to formally appeal to the president for disaster relief funding, which could include money for emergency housing, food, and water.

A spokesperson for Healey declined requests for comment Sunday. She had no public events scheduled on Monday.

A Haitian father and his six-month-old posed for a portrait together inside a shelter in Boston. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

This comes months after New York called a state of emergency and Florida activated additional National Guard members to help cope with surges in migrants. New York City, Chicago, El Paso, and Washington, D.C., have also made emergency declarations.


In Massachusetts, when families are in need of a place to sleep, the state is forced to act quickly — sometimes within a single day — to shelter them due to a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law. The law is the only one of its kind on the books for a state.

In June, Healey and her aides said they were working on a response to the crisis and left the door open to an emergency declaration.

“I am going to do whatever I can to maximize resources and funding and support from the federal government as we continue to work with communities and nonprofits around the state,” the governor said at the time.

The immigrants are turning up around the clock at Logan International Airport, South Station, hospitals, and community intake centers. Many of them are from Venezuela and Haiti and are fleeing political strife, street violence, and economic collapse.

As of Friday, 1,382 homeless families had been placed in hotel shelters. When Healey took office in January, there were 388.

Ferrier and the heads of three other organizations that run shelters in the state’s family emergency assistance system, where many of the migrants have landed, said they’re stretched to a breaking point in staffing and in space.

“This really is a safety issue when we have this many people being housed in large sites who either aren’t being staffed at all or not enough,” Ferrier said, voicing fears of some exploiting others. “What you have is our most vulnerable humans, whether it’s Commonwealth residents or immigrants.”


Staff from Healey’s housing secretariat held a call Friday evening with shelter providers to reassure them that plans are in the works, said two people who were on the call.

They didn’t offer specifics in the call, but suggested that the administration would be taking action in the coming days to shore up the overburdened system, one of the two said. Healey and Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll held a virtual meeting Sunday night for providers, during which they extolled the virtues of an emergency declaration, but didn’t definitively say whether they would call for one, according to two people who participated in that call.

John Yazwinski, head of Father Bill’s & MainSpring, which runs shelters south of Boston, said he is among those who have been urging the governor to declare a state of emergency.

“We’re starting to get concerned about the safety of the children and the families” in shelters due to overcrowding, he said in an interview Sunday. “We need to ask for help.”

The governor’s office and providers have been working hard to handle the situation, he said, but suggested deploying “the National Guard and MEMA [Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency] to coordinate a solution.”

Illustrating the challenges on the system, he said Father Bill’s took in a few dozen of the migrants that Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida flew to Martha’s Vineyard last summer — and most of them remain in his shelter system.

And one major reason for that, he said, is that, “We can’t get them their work papers.”


Larry Seamans of FamilyAid said his organization’s waiting period for families to get into the emergency assistance housing program has jumped from 10 days to 25.

“The challenge is the volume against the available resources — both physical shelter and human,” Seamans said.

Asked about the right-to-shelter rule, Seamans said, “I don’t think the problem is the law. The problem is the cost of living, the lack of low-income housing, and the rate of poverty in our urban centers.”

He said, “We have two options: create more temporary housing or leave people on the streets.”

Yazwinski, however, said the right-to-shelter law “was created decades ago and was not put in place for a humanitarian and immigration crisis like this.”

It’s difficult to quantify the extent of the influx of migrants in Massachusetts, as they are not counted separately from others seeking shelter. But the number of arrivals has exhausted the available shelter space, with officials and advocates resorting to empty dormitories and hotel rooms to fill the ever-growing need.

The Healey administration has worked for months to address the crisis, including adding tens of millions of dollars to the emergency shelter system, opening two new family “welcome centers” and a temporary shelter on Joint Base Cape Cod, as well as directing an infusion of money to local organizations helping migrants with case management and legal assistance.

The administration adopted a new housing code that exempts emergency shelters from certain state sanitary code requirements that could be used by communities to prevent hotels, motels, and other properties from being utilized to accommodate the swelling tide of homeless and migrant families.


Even without an emergency declaration, a number of Massachusetts groups have received funding through FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which was funded by Congress to help localities dealing with newly arrived migrants and other unhoused people.

But the influx of new arrivals continues to outpace the state’s efforts.

Pastor Dieufort Fleurissaint, a prominent Haitian activist in Boston known as “the Rev. Keke,” said he’s heard the rumors about state action and said he looks forward to hearing what the governor would have to say.

“The crisis is still coming,” he said.

“Six months, eight months, some people a year now waiting for work permits,” he said. “We have a very young, talented workforce. They can work, they’re ready to work, they’re eager to work.”

Sean Cotter can be reached at sean.cotter@globe.com. Follow him @cotterreporter. Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross.