The year was 1983, and newly sworn-in Governor Michael Dukakis was giving his inaugural address to a jam-packed State House chamber.
Dukakis, a liberal Democrat, pledged “to put together a statewide effort which will provide the necessities of life to those in desperate need.” He called for legislation that would guarantee shelter for every homeless family in the state.
Ten months later, Dukakis signed what became known as the “right-to-shelter” law, which has for 40 years required state officials to quickly provide shelter and other necessities to homeless parents with children, pregnant women, and most recently, a large influx of migrant families arriving in Massachusetts. Homeless individuals are not covered by the right-to-shelter law.
The requirement, which is unique to Massachusetts, has pushed the overburdened shelter system to the brink, driving Governor Maura Healey on Tuesday to declare a state of emergency, appealing to the federal government for help.
At the time of its passage the need was high: the state was beginning to close its mental hospitals, a process known as “deinstitutionalization,” and rising drug use had left people homeless and sleeping in the streets of Boston and cities across the state.
Forty years later, the state finds itself in a similar place. Using dozens of vendors, including hotels, the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities provides shelter, food, and basic necessities to the families who have nowhere else to stay. Currently, more than 5,600 families with children are living in state-funded shelters, 80 percent more than just one year ago. Even with infusions of funding and efforts to swiftly open new shelters, the state has struggled to keep up.
The state is spending $45 million a month on programs to help families eligible for emergency assistance.
The migrants reaching Massachusetts are part of a national immigration surge that has overwhelmed shelter systems across the country. Between October and June, the federal government recorded nearly 200,000 attempted border crossings a month. Many of those migrants leave border cities and head north, eventually to cities such as Chicago, New York, or Boston.
“This is a national issue that demands a national response,” Healey said at a news conference announcing the declaration. “This is done as a matter of necessity.”
The most similar policy to Massachusetts’ exists in New York City, where all homeless individuals — not just families — are guaranteed shelter. But that policy is confined to the city limits; Massachusetts is the only state in the nation with a “right-to-shelter” law statewide.
In May, New York Mayor Eric Adams suspended some components of the right-to-shelter policy, such as a requirement that families have access to a kitchen. He contended that complying with the policy was no longer possible after more than 70,000 migrants reached the city from the US southern border.
Adams declared a state of emergency over the migration surge last year. New York Governor Kathy Hochul also issued an executive order that would allow the state to use as many as 500 additional National Guard members to help with logistics and operations at shelter sites. The city is also expecting to receive $104.6 million in federal funds.
Massachusetts officials have said the right-to-shelter law forces them to find shelter quickly, sometimes within a single afternoon. On such a short timeline, hotels are sometimes the only viable option.
A former spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Community Development, which previously ran the emergency assistance program, said complying with the law requires a “Herculean effort.” The state’s efforts to place families quickly has sometimes created tensions with communities that can suddenly find themselves responsible for providing health services or educating children of homeless families.
State Representative Peter Durant, a Republican from Spencer, called Tuesday for Healey to file legislation to repeal the right-to-shelter law altogether, saying that Massachusetts has become a “magnet state.”
“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, who is running for a state Senate seat, said in a statement. “Worse yet, all of this assistance is being taken away from our legal residents and it is a potential safety risk for the children.”
Asked if she had considered temporarily lifting the law, Healey quickly responded, “No. I was never going to end, nor do I have the authority to end the right to shelter in the state.”
Rachel Heller, chief executive of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, said she is “so proud that we have the right-to-shelter law. I think it speaks to who we are as a state.”
But, she added, “the goal has always been to not have the need for it.”
If Massachusetts did not have a right-to-shelter law, “families would be living on the street or in their cars,” according to Leah Bradley, chief executive officer of the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance. “That’s what happens in other states.”
Federal statistics support that view.
Cities with large homeless populations but no right-to-shelter policy tend to have much higher rates of unsheltered homelessness than Boston or New York.
In San Francisco, more than half of homeless people had no shelter last year. In Los Angeles, that figure was more than 70 percent.
In Boston, by contrast, fewer than 3 percent of homeless people had no shelter last year. In New York City, it was fewer than 6 percent, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Bradley said the accelerating demand for emergency shelter was driven not just by rising immigration to the state but also by an increase in homelessness among longtime Massachusetts residents.
“Families just aren’t able to afford rent anymore,” she said. Rising costs for food and utilities, as well as rent hikes, have pushed some, even those with steady income, over the edge. “We’ve seen an uptick in the number of people who are working who are unable to afford rent at this time,” she said.
As more families lose their homes, the strains on the emergency shelter system only grow. The nonprofits hired by the state to provide shelter, as well as food and basic necessities, such as diapers, are stretched beyond their capacity. “The service providers just don’t have the ability to provide [the required] level of service to everyone who’s in need right now,” Bradley said.
When Dukakis took office, Massachusetts supported only two shelters for homeless people. By 1990, there were more than 100 shelters, 70 of which were for families with children. The swift action and attention to the homelessness crisis, not unlike Healey’s Tuesday proclamation, was a signature moment of his time in the corner office.
“I am proud of what we did. We have had a lot of governors since who really ignored them,” said Phillip Johnston, who served as secretary of human services under Dukakis. “Poor people have not been at the top of the list.”