Governor Maura Healey appealed to the federal government and private citizens alike Tuesday as she announced an emergency declaration aimed at addressing the state’s overburdened shelter system.
The state of emergency — the first since she took over the corner office — comes as more than 5,600 families with children are living in state-funded shelters, a number that is 80 percent higher than one year ago.
The goal of the declaration is twofold: to ask the federal government for funding and to authorize work permits for new arrivals, and to call attention to others in the state who can help house families, such as businesses, landlords, private residences, and the faith community.
In her announcement at the State House, Healey said while the state has taken actions to try to meet the need, “we’re unable to move people from housing and shelter into permanent housing.”
“This is a national issue that demands a national response,” Healey said.
Pressure on the state’s emergency shelter system, exacerbated by an influx of migrants on top of the state’s already dire housing needs, has mounted in recent months, pushing the state to use empty dormitories and hotel rooms to answer the ever-growing need.
The state is currently spending $45 million a month on programs to help families eligible for emergency assistance, and is still struggling to keep up. There are currently more than 20,000 individuals in state shelter, including children and pregnant women.
“We’ve been expanding and continuing to look for housing and shelter opportunities, expanding shelter at a rapid pace. And it’s unsustainable,” she said. “We need action to remove barriers and expedite federal work authorizations. We need action and intervention for funding to help us in this time.”
Healey’s declaration opens a path toward seeking federal aid. It enables the governor to call up the National Guard more quickly. And it allows her to bypass normal procurement rules that require a competitive bid process, allowing the state to more quickly hire vendors and contractors or rent places for people to stay.
The declaration also enables the governor to formally appeal to the president for disaster relief funding, which could include money for emergency housing, food, and water.
In a three-page letter to US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas dated Aug. 8, Healey asked the federal government to “please heed this collective call to action.”
“Although Massachusetts is adding shelter units every week, without extraordinary measures, we fear we will be unable to add capacity fast enough to place all eligible families safely into shelter,” she wrote. “We do not currently have the tools we need to meet the rapidly rising demand for emergency shelter.”
The Massachusetts federal delegation also recently wrote to Mayorkas and US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ur M. Jaddou, urging them to expedite and streamline the work authorization process.
To a room packed with advocates, providers, government officials, and reporters on Tuesday, Healey recounted recent visits to family shelters. In Salem, she met a father of two young children, originally from Haiti, who is a certified welder. She said without prompting, he reached into his pocket and showed the officials his welder’s license and asked that he be put to work.
Healey also said she met a farmer and a truck driver from Haiti, a mom from the Dominican Republic, and a woman from Algeria who used to be a French teacher and would like to teach again.
“They’re exactly the kind of hard-working, resilient, resourceful, enterprising newcomers who have always been the engine of America’s success,” she said. “Their assets . . . can enrich our culture and strengthen our economy.”
The announcement 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, Texas; and Washington, D.C., have made similar emergency declarations.
In Massachusetts, immigrants are turning up around the clock at Logan International Airport, South Station, hospitals, and community intake centers.
During Tuesday’s announcement, Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll, who is the daughter of an immigrant from Trinidad, also announced the creation of a new relief fund created by the Boston Foundation and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay.
According to the administration, the fund will distribute donations through local organizations to help get families temporary accommodations, food, clothing, diapers, hygiene items, transportation. It will also fund programs such as health screenings, translation services, legal assistance, work authorizations, and English classes.
Driscoll appealed to churches, hotel owners, landlords, and people willing to host families in their homes, saying they can help by visiting the state’s website listing ways to support families in need.
“There’s no doubt this is a serious crisis of families in real need in a system that is under stress,” Driscoll said. “But we also have no doubt that Massachusetts will rise to meet this moment.”
The first major donation to the Massachusetts Migrant Families Relief Fund of $100,000 came from the Eastern Bank Foundation. The fund also got a $50,000 donation from Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Geralde Gabeau, head of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan, has been a leader in the response to the migrant crisis this year.
“People ask me, ‘Why are you so passionate about helping immigrants all the time?’ I call them my heroes,” Gabeau, whose group serves mostly new arrivals, said at the press conference. “We need all of us coming together so we can make our state the leader of welcoming with love, compassion, and dignity.”
In a statement shortly before the Tuesday announcement, state Representative and candidate for the Senate Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, called for Healey to file emergency legislation to repeal Massachusetts’ 1983 “right to shelter” law, which requires the state to act quickly when some families are in need of a place to sleep.
“Our homeless shelters are maxed out. Hotels across the state have been converted to shelters. And the problem is growing on a daily basis,” Durant wrote. “Worse yet, all of this assistance is being taken away from our legal residents and it is a potential safety risk for the children. It is time to repeal the Right to Settle law, so Massachusetts will stop being a magnet state.”
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.
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 still, it is has not been enough, Healey said,
“When we look into the faces of migrant moms and dads and children, we should recognize the hope, the courage of those who built our state and made our own lives possible,” she said. We have a congressional delegation that advances our values and advocates for our needs. We need all of Congress to follow their lead and support long overdue immigration reform.”