Frustrated by a lack of federal help in the face of an influx of migrant families, Governor Maura Healey on Monday said she will begin limiting how many families it will place in its emergency shelter system by November, effectively putting a no vacancy sign on the overwhelmed program.
Healey warned the state is unable to house more than 7,500 families, or 24,000 individuals, a limit officials expect to hit by month’s end. By then, the state will stop adding more shelter units, Healey said, marking a sharp pivot in her administration’s response to the ballooning crisis.
“We are entering a new phase of this challenge,” Healey said at a State House news conference. “We can no longer guarantee shelter placement for families who are sent here.”
The move immediately raised a host of questions, from what will happen with homeless families who are pushed to a waitlist to whether the state, which is legally obligated to house homeless families, has the authority to limit who is given shelter.
Healey on Monday named Lieutenant General Leon Scott Rice, a longtime Southampton resident and former director of the Air National Guard, to lead the statewide response as emergency assistance director. Before he took his job at the Pentagon, Rice served as a commander in the Massachusetts National Guard.
Healey’s office said the state also would be “expanding support” for programs such as HomeBASE, under which eligible homeless families can receive help toward rental costs, and offering rental vouchers for roughly 1,200 families who have been living in shelters for longer than 18 months.
But Healey also is not seeking additional money from the Legislature beyond a still-outstanding request for a $250 million infusion she made weeks ago.
It was also not immediately clear what would happen to families who cannot find room in the existing shelters. Massachusetts is the only state in the nation with a “right-to-shelter” law statewide, a 1983 law that obligates officials to immediately house eligible families. The crisis has prompted calls from state Republicans and some local leaders for the state to reshape, suspend, or even eliminate the mandate, though legislative leaders have not indicated they plan on seriously pursuing that option.
State officials said in a presentation to shelter providers Monday morning they would continue to “serve every family who appeals for help as best we can,” but would prioritize families with health and safety risks for shelter placement. Healey also said the state will maintain a wait-list for emergency shelter housing, with plans for “triaging families.”
Healey said she is not seeking to repeal the state’s right-to-shelter law, but that the state doesn’t “expect to be able to house people the way we’ve been able to.”
For wait-listed families, however, it will be “as if the right doesn’t exist,” said Kelly Turley of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
“If the message to families is, ‘There is no space for you in your hour of need,’ that hasn’t been something that has been the message from the Commonwealth for over 40 years,” Turley said. “It certainly is distressing to know that families who by definition have no place to go . . . may be met with a shut door.”
The new policy also “raises significant legal and humanitarian concerns” that threaten to “deepen the existing humanitarian crisis,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights.
“The governor cannot unilaterally decide to stop complying with the law, particularly when it is needed the most,” he said.
Aides to Healey said Monday the right-to-shelter law was established under different circumstances four decades ago, and noted the law is “subject to appropriation” — in other words, whether the Legislature provides the necessary funding.
As of Monday, the number of families in the state’s shelter system had topped 7,000, with nearly half of them — 3,270 families in all — staying in state-subsidized hotels or motels.
In all, there are currently about 23,000 people in the state’s shelter system, the equivalent of a “small city” spread across 90 communities, said Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll. About half of those in the emergency shelter system are newly arrived immigrants, Healey said.
“We can’t secure endless sites,” said Danielle Ferrier, chief executive of Heading Home, which contracts with the state to provide roughly 350 family shelter units in the Boston and Lawrence areas. “They just don’t exist in the state.”
The complex crisis has drawn in a web of state officials, from Healey’s health and human services office, her newly created housing secretariat, and the National Guard in addition to an array of nonprofit and advocacy groups. In Rice, the state will now have a dedicated director, something advocates, nonprofit leaders, and others have pressed the state to adopt for months.
Healey declared a state of emergency in August 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.
She also sent the Legislature a proposal to infuse $250 million into the shelter system. It’s a significant sum, given Healey signed a budget in August that dedicated roughly $325 million to the state’s emergency assistance and shelter system for the entire fiscal year. The Legislature has yet to act on the request.
“It’s not going to solve our problem. It may not even get us to the end of this month,” House Speaker Ronald Mariano said of the $250 million request in an appearance on WCVB on Sunday.
Healey, like other Democrats around the country, has repeatedly pleaded for federal action from the Biden administration and Congress, saying the state alone cannot absorb the costs of the crisis.
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security visited Massachusetts last week, when they spoke with legislative and state leaders, Boston officials, and local officials in Woburn, among others.
Resettlement agencies such as the International Institute of New England, which has resettled more than 6,000 Haitian migrants this year, said getting funding from the state and federal government is crucial to their work. Xan Weber, senior vice president of the organization, said more money — and diverting money from hotel rooms to more sustainable resources — will help create a more-connected system to allow migrants to come here, settle, and contribute to the economy.
“I am impressed that we have been able to hold onto our right-to-shelter commitment for so long,” Weber said. “I hope we don’t let it go. But I don’t think there is a way to do this without funding it.”
State officials and immigration advocates like Weber argue the federal government’s long backlog of work permit applications has become a key obstacle in helping migrants exit the shelters and live independently. Local and state officials across the country have cited the backlog of work permit applications, which, once approved, would allow migrants to earn money and thus find their own housing, as a top complaint.
Healey reiterated her demands for federal action on Monday, saying the state needs not just funding but more sites to house families. The crisis, she said, is a federal problem whose burden is being carried by the states.
“State and local budgets can only stretch so far,” she said.