Massachusetts legislative leaders said they want “hard numbers” on the scope of the state’s emergency shelter crisis before moving on Governor Maura Healey’s request for a $250 million infusion into the state’s overwhelmed shelter system, where she estimates roughly half of the people being housed are immigrants.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Tuesday that he was not sure if his chamber would support the $250 million request, which Healey folded into a wider spending bill last week. Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, said lawmakers are “still searching for some answers” on what the total costs could be for the shelter system, which has been stretched by an influx of migrant families into the state.
“We’re looking to get hard numbers, and it’s very difficult for them to give us hard numbers,” Mariano told reporters at the State House following a 90-minute meeting with Healey and Senate President Karen E. Spilka. “We know how many there are now, today. We don’t know how many there will be tomorrow.”
Healey wrote in a letter to lawmakers last week that the cash infusion would allow the state to house and support more than 6,500 families, including children and pregnant women, in the system for this fiscal year “as we work toward longer-term solutions.” Of those, more than 2,700 were living in state-subsidized hotels and motels as of last week.
Healey said Tuesday that, in total, there are 22,000 people in the shelter system, “about half” of which are immigrants. Roughly half are also children, she said.
Healey again echoed her pleas for federal action, saying the state alone cannot absorb the costs of the crisis. Last month, she declared a state of emergency and, weeks later, said she would activate up to 250 members of the National Guard to help families living in hotels that don’t have a contracted service provider, typically a nonprofit, to help families access medical care, find transportation, or organize food deliveries.
Healey said Tuesday that some families coming to Massachusetts arrived from other states, including Florida and Texas, where she said unidentified “organizations” provided them with plane and bus tickets to go to Boston and other major cities, such as Chicago and New York.
A spokesperson later said Healey was speaking anecdotally, and the Democratic governor indicated she was not aware of a repeat of Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s administration flying dozens of migrants on Martha’s Vineyard, as he did last year.
“It is simply not sustainable,” Healey said of the swell in migrant families, criticizing what she called “Congress’s failure to act on much-needed immigration reform and a federal administration that has been unable to provide us with the funding to support what really is a federal problem.
“So we as a state are now forced to bear the burden and the responsibility of this,” she said.
As of last month, the state was spending $45 million a month on programs to help families eligible for emergency assistance, and is still struggling to keep up. A separate spending bill Healey signed in March injected $85 million to the state’s shelter system, including money that could go toward local school districts absorbing new students whose families are moved to a state-subsidized hotel.
The state has also opened two new family “welcome centers” and a temporary shelter on Joint Base Cape Cod, as well as directed an infusion of money to local organizations helping migrants with case management and legal assistance.
But the numbers haven’t stopped growing. Under a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law, Massachusetts is required to provide emergency shelter to homeless families, the only state in the country with such a requirement. The mandate doesn’t apply to homeless individuals.
Healey on Tuesday sidestepped a question about whether the state should rethink the requirement, saying that it “will be up for discussion and debate by others.”
But legislative leaders indicated they aren’t considering it. Mariano said he has not talked with other state representatives about removing the mandate, and Spilka indicated that she doesn’t view it as a solution to the state’s growing problem.
“The bottom line is, for now, these are families, these are children that are coming. And if they’re here, what’s the alternative?” the Ashland Democrat said, suggesting they instead would “sleep on the [Boston] Common or outside. Particularly as the weather starts getting colder, we need to come up with a plan.”