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Why the state’s right-to-shelter law needs to change

Massachusetts has found shelter for 23,000 people. But as migrants continue to stream into the state, the state can’t be expected to conjure up beds indefinitely.

Gov. Maura Healey, accompanied by newly appointed Emergency Assistance Director Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice, speaks during a news conference at the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. She warned that the state's emergency family shelter system will reach capacity by the end of the month, and that the system has been expanding at an unsustainable rate to meet the demand from newly arriving migrant families. The arrivals, combined with a slower exit of family already in long term shelter, means the state is on track to hit its capacity of 7.500 families by the end of October. (AP Photo/Steve LeBlanc)Steve LeBlanc/Associated Press

On Monday, Governor Maura Healey bowed to the inevitable and announced that the state would no longer automatically provide housing to the migrant families that are streaming into Massachusetts. The state, she said, had done its best but had simply maxed out its available resources, sheltering more than 23,000 people — the population of a small city, as Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll pointed out.

The state has been providing emergency assistance shelters — often in motels or other less-than-ideal sites — under its unique right-to-shelter law, a policy that exists in no other state and whose inherent practical problems have been revealed by this crisis. Although she insists she’s not, Healey has essentially put that law aside. Indeed, while the law reflects a noble aspiration to put a roof over every needy family’s head, the experience of the last six months has shown why the Legislature needs to rework it into a policy that gives the state more leeway in crises like this one.


In the meantime, the fact that even a liberal-minded state like Massachusetts is throwing in the towel on housing migrants ought to focus attention on Washington, where neither Congress nor the Biden administration have shown the appropriate urgency on addressing the migrant housing crisis. The Biden administration has allowed hundreds of thousands of migrants — fleeing instability in Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, and elsewhere — to enter the United States this year, but hasn’t allowed them to work to support themselves or provided states enough assistance in housing them.

The result has been scenes like what is occurring in Chicago, where thousands of migrants are sleeping near police stations; New York, where the city’s mayor said that the immigration crisis will “destroy New York City”; and now Massachusetts, where it’s unclear what will happen to migrants who arrive once the administration’s cap goes into effect.


When it goes into effect Nov. 1, the cap will limit to 7,500 the number of families in emergency shelters. The administration will attempt to triage families to make sure those most in need — the emergency shelter system also includes homeless Massachusetts families — get first dibs on the available beds.

It’s a wonder — and a testament to how hard the Healey administration tried to meet the mandate of the state shelter law — that this shift didn’t happen sooner. State officials, nonprofits, volunteers, and communities have shown great generosity in helping people in need. But no state can just conjure up enough beds practically overnight to meet demands created by an unexpected international crisis. Nobody wants to see migrants sleeping on the streets, and it is incumbent on the federal government to now make sure that doesn’t happen.

“We’ve really done all that we can,” Healey said. And it has come at a cost. “At some point, you become so overwhelmed financially and logistically that you’re going to sacrifice services to other residents of the state,” state Senator Ryan Fattman told the editorial board. Across the state, as the Globe has reported, schools are struggling to accommodate migrant children.

Many of the communities receiving migrants also get little notice before families’ arrival, which has created problems both for communities and migrants. Housing Secretary Ed Augustus, who oversees emergency housing, told the editorial board earlier this month that “it is a challenge as we get to bigger and bigger numbers … that’s why sometimes we’re not able to give the kind of notice that we want to give to communities because we’re scrambling.”


For migrants, this has increasingly meant living in suboptimal conditions. State law supposedly guarantees locations that are “geographically convenient to families who are homeless” and promises to “administer the program in a fair, just, and equitable manner.” But many migrant families are being placed in questionable locations. In Sutton, families were placed at a Red Roof Inn on a major highway, secluded from grocery stores. That’s hardly “geographically convenient.” That the property caught fire last month, despite warnings from local authorities about its safety hazards, raises questions about whether being placed there was “fair, just, and equitable.” The Baymont Hotel in Kingston — where there are more than 400 migrant and Massachusetts families — was evacuated after children used the microwave, filling the building with smoke.

In announcing the cap, Healey played a bit of a semantic game, saying that the state isn’t “ending the right-to-shelter law,” while at the same time insisting “we do not have enough space, service providers, or friends to safely expand beyond 7,500 families.” Healey would be better off simply stating the obvious: In an extreme situation like this, the law is unrealistic. Even if one believes the Healey administration could have found a few more beds here or there, it should be obvious that there is some practical limit on what the state can do.


Instituted in 1983 under governor Mike Dukakis, the right-to-shelter law reflected a spirit of compassion that still runs strong in Massachusetts’ DNA. But the law has become untenable, and Healey’s move should prompt the Legislature to amend it. If nothing else, the Legislature could explicitly allow what Healey is doing — prioritizing the most urgent cases — to protect the state from lawsuits. It could give more flexibility on the type of shelter offered. It could add a residency requirement. It could also provide a version of the relief that Mayor Eric Adams has requested in New York City, if the number of people seeking housing rises by more than a certain percent in a period of time (Adams proposed 50 percent over a baseline). Any reform should leave intact the general expectation that people in need would get shelter but account for exceptional spikes.

There’s little appetite in legislative leadership for revisiting the law; nobody wants to be accused of abandoning needy families. Healey is right to characterize the influx of migrants as a federal problem, due to federal policies. But Massachusetts is responsible for its own laws. The right-to-shelter law sets a noble goal, but it needs to be flexible enough to account for circumstances truly beyond any governor’s control.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.