Governor Maura Healey on Thursday activated up to 250 National Guard members to help families living in state-subsidized hotels, marking an escalation in the state’s bid to gain a handle on its overloaded emergency family shelter system.
In the coming weeks, the National Guard members are expected to assist the more than 750 homeless families staying at roughly 40 hotels that, at the moment, don’t have a contracted service provider to help families access medical care, find transportation, or enroll their children in school.
The order comes weeks after Healey announced an emergency declaration aimed at addressing the overburdened shelter system, appealing to the federal government and private citizens alike to help. The declaration, in part, allows the governor to call up the National Guard more quickly.
An influx of migrants the last two years, combined with a housing crunch, has stretched the state’s “emergency assistance” family shelter system beyond its capacity. Massachusetts is required to provide emergency shelter to homeless families under a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law, the only state in the country with such a requirement. The mandate doesn’t apply to homeless individuals.
“Massachusetts is in a state of emergency, and we need all hands on deck to meet this moment and ensure families have access to safe shelter and basic services,” Healey said in a statement Thursday. “While we work to implement a more permanent staffing solution, the National Guard will provide an efficient and effective means of delivering these services and keeping everybody safe.”
In addition to National Guard members, state officials said they are also launching so-called regional rapid response teams to help oversee shelter sites and serve as a direct contact to her administration. The teams will be made up of state employees.
“This is a good short-term solution,” said Danielle Ferrier of the homeless-services organization Heading Home. The lack of staffing and security has been a problem in buildings full of vulnerable people who could be preyed on, she said. ”We do need somebody there to make sure the site is secure and safe.”
State officials said there are more than 6,000 families, including children and pregnant women, in emergency shelters. Roughly 2,400 families are staying in state-subsidized hotels and motels, a Healey spokesperson said Thursday — far more than the number publicized in an online tracker the state keeps. When Healey took office in January, just 388 families were living in hotel shelters.
Amid that explosion of need, the state has been unable to keep pace in pairing hotels with service providers. That leaves homeless families without help in accessing the “basics of life,” said Jeff Thielman, chief executive of the International Institute of New England, which serves newly arrived migrants in Greater Boston.
Thielman said his organization is also preparing to sign a contract with the state to provide case management and legal services for homeless families, including in hotels without service providers.
“It’s a good, smart move,” Thielman said of deploying the National Guard. “You need to coordinate food delivery. You need to coordinate medical services for people. You need to coordinate all sorts of logistical issues. If they’re unstaffed by the state or a shelter provider, a lot of things fall through the cracks.”
Pressure on Massachusetts’ emergency shelter system, exacerbated by the influx of migrants, has mounted in recent months, pushing the state to use empty dormitories and hotel rooms to answer the ever-growing need. Migrants are turning up around the clock at Logan Airport, South Station, hospitals, and community intake centers. Many are from Venezuela and Haiti and are fleeing political strife, street violence, and economic collapse.
More than 80 communities now are home to family shelters, including in Concord, where migrants from countries including Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cape Verde are now living and have received support from within the town.
As of August, the state was spending $45 million a month on programs to help families eligible for emergency assistance, and is still struggling to keep up.
Other states have taken steps similar to Massachusetts. Months earlier, New York called a state of emergency and Florida activated additional National Guard members to help cope with surges in migrants.
The Healey administration, too, has tried a variety of responses. The state added tens of millions of dollars to the emergency shelter system, opened two new family “welcome centers” and a temporary shelter on Joint Base Cape Cod, and directed an infusion of money to local organizations helping migrants with case management and legal assistance.
The emergency declaration Healey made also enabled her to formally appeal to the president for federal disaster relief, which could include money for emergency housing, food, and water. Healey has called on federal officials to streamline and expedite work authorizations and increase funding to help states provide shelter to families, though the Healey administration has not yet appealed for disaster relief aid.
State officials on Thursday described the activation of the National Guard as a way to help meet families’ needs while they seek more assistance from the federal government.
“This National Guard activation is a necessary step to ensure that families in emergency shelter have access to the services they need to stay safe and healthy,” Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll said in a statement.
Despite the holes in the system, the move to bring in the National Guard stoked concern in some quarters. Kelly Turley of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless said some advocates worry that the Guard members would be armed and that could be traumatizing to refugees fleeing war-torn countries.
She said state officials told them that would not be the case; a Healey spokesperson confirmed administration officials made that assurance.
Turley also wants to see more centralized information from the state and more details about who will be the response teams. But overall, she and others applauded the state for taking some steps.
”There are a lot of resources available in Massachusetts, but they can be difficult to navigate without an advocate,” Turley said. Having someone to help can allow people to “move more quickly from a state of homelessness into more stability and more permanent housing.”
John Yazwinski, chief executive of Father Bill’s & Mainspring, which runs shelters around the South Shore, said he supports Healey’s move to address this “humanitarian crisis.” But there are also other growing issues.
He said his shelters have seen an uptick in the past month of families that don’t qualify for the emergency assistance system, such as adults who are related to each other but don’t have children. That means they’re going into the separate individual shelter system.
At least one conservative group criticized the decision to activate the Guard at all. In a statement, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance argued that Healey instead should send Guard members “to the southern border where the [immigration] problem is only getting worse.”