A state judge ruled Wednesday that Governor Maura Healey can push forward with her plan to limit the number of homeless families housed in the state’s emergency shelter system, clearing the way for new rules to take effect, perhaps by week’s end, that advocates warn could force children, pregnant women, and others to the streets.
Suffolk County Superior Judge Debra A. Squires-Lee rejected a request from Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based advocacy group, to temporarily block the Healey administration from creating a cap of 7,500 families on the statewide program, which has been overwhelmed by a surge of migrant families into the state. As of Wednesday, there were 7,388 families in the system.
“No one seriously disputes that families living without safe shelter are at risk and, in particular, that children without access to stable housing may be irreparably harmed,” Squires-Lee wrote in the 11-page ruling. “But the burden [the administration] faces is simply that it no longer has either the money or the space to provide such housing immediately for every family that is eligible for the same.”
For decades, homeless families have been guaranteed a roof over their heads under a 1980s-era law in Massachusetts, the only state in the country with a so-called right-to-shelter requirement. But the current statute makes the mandate “subject to appropriation” — in other words, the state is required to follow it only as long as it has enough funding.
Healey and her aides argue the system has been pushed to its limits. At the current pace, nearly 13,500 families could be in the shelter system by the end of June, which would drive the cost of the program to $1.1 billion this year, according to Aditya Basheer, an assistant secretary in Healey’s budget office. That’s nearly four times what the state initially budgeted.
And, state officials say, if the state does not cap the number of families in the system — and it receives no other funding — the state would exhaust its current shelter budget by Jan. 13.
Healey asked the Legislature in mid-September to provide up to $250 million more of state money for the program, though Democratic leaders have yet to act on the request. Lawmakers are quickly nearing a Nov. 15 deadline to wrap formal sessions for the year.
“As much as I wish that I possessed the power to ensure that all families who need housing have it, and that all families who require safe emergency shelter are given it ... it would be inappropriate to order [the state] to continue providing emergency shelter it does not have the resources appropriated by the Legislature to fund,” Squires-Lee wrote.
Healey administration officials have said once the system hits the new limit, which could happen in days, families seeking shelter would then be moved to a waitlist, where they’d idle for an unknown amount of time.
Under new guidance, families seeking shelter would be prioritized across four separate groups, pushing those with children aged three months or younger, relatives who are immunocompromised, or women with high-risk pregnancies to the front of the line. Families with someone who has a tracheostomy tube, as well those deemed at “imminent” risk of danger from domestic violence, would also be considered a top priority for space in the shelter system as it becomes available.
Other families with infants, women in late-term pregnancy, or those with certain types of medication would help make up the lower priority tiers.
New emergency regulations that state officials filed Tuesday also would allow them, with 30 days notice, to begin cutting off how long a family could stay in a shelter. That in itself is a step the state has never taken since adopting its so-called right to shelter law 40 years ago, homeless advocates say.
Andrea Park, an advocacy director at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said what the administration is proposing is “extremely concerning,” especially considering the dipping temperatures.
“There isn’t going to be a safe place for families to stay,” Park said, noting that her organization and others will continue urging the administration to secure more shelter sites. She also hopes the Legislature will provide more funding, even in the short term.
“No one wants to see families left out in the street,” she said.
Healey said Tuesday that her “heart aches” for families who are turned away from shelter. But she said she’s attempting to manage a surge of migrant families that have put an unprecedented strain on the state system. The Democrat has estimated that roughly half of those in emergency shelter are immigrants, many of whom are now staying in state subsidized hotels and motels.
Kevin Connor, a spokesperson for Healey’s housing office, reiterated Wednesday that the state does not have “enough space, service providers or funding to safely expand shelter capacity.”
“We respect the court process and believe an appropriate outcome was reached,” Connor said.
Lawyers for Civil Rights sued the state last week on behalf of three migrant families, and appeared before Squires-Lee on Tuesday, asking that she grant a temporary injunction to block Healey’s plans. An attorney for the group likened the state’s plans to a fire department “creating a waitlist for families with ongoing house fires” and argued that Healey’s administration skirted a requirement that it give the Massachusetts Legislature a 90-day notice of plans to change the shelter system’s rules.
Without an injunction, the group wrote in court documents, families and children who are entitled to emergency shelter under the state mandate would be denied a roof over their heads and be “forced to sleep on the streets, in cars, and in other unsafe conditions.”
“There is no other way to put it,” attorney Oren Sellstrom wrote. “That is the grim reality.”
But Squires-Lee wrote it is up to the Legislature, not advocates, to enforce the administration’s compliance with the 90-day mandate, which she argued Healey effectively fulfilled by asking for more funding nearly seven weeks ago.
“The evidence before me ... is clear — more than a month ago, the Governor specifically requested additional appropriations for the emergency assistance program and the Legislature has failed to act,” she wrote.
In a statement following the ruling, Lawyers for Civil Rights said attorneys are “evaluating next steps for the litigation.”
“In the meantime, the ball is squarely in the Legislature’s court to respond to this humanitarian crisis,” it added.
Aides to House Speaker Ron Mariano on Wednesday did not address when a spending bill could emerge. Senate President Karen E. Spilka also did not say, instead issuing a statement reiterating that the state needs federal aid.
“I continue to believe that, while we must help ensure that no family or child faces sleeping on the street, we need help to do so,” she said.