Governor Maura Healey said Thursday her administration is considering limiting how long homeless families can remain in Massachusetts emergency shelters, a move that would further tighten restrictions on a system that has become overwhelmed by a surge of arriving migrants.
It remains unclear the exact time limit on shelter stays families would face. If adopted, these limits on length of stay would come on top of new restrictions capping the total number of families allowed in the shelter system at 7,500 families — a number it’s expected to reach within days, if not sooner.
This state-imposed capacity limit means Massachusetts will no longer guarantee shelter after decades of operating under a mandate to house homeless families.
“We’re open to time limits. Whatever the moment requires,” Healey said at an unrelated State House news conference Thursday. She declined to say what timeframe she is considering, but expects to “have more information about that.”
“I don’t want to see people out on the street. I understand people’s vulnerability,” Healey said. But, the Democrat added, “we have to be prepared to be nimble and flexible with regard to the implementation, OK?”
Such a move quickly raised concerns with homeless advocates, who called potential time limits “cruel,” as well as some lawmakers on Thursday.
State Representative Michelle DuBois, a Brockton Democrat, wrote on X — the social media platform formerly known as Twitter — that she opposes limiting both placements and time spent in shelters, calling them “draconian limits [to] life sustaining heat as we enter winter.”
The potential for imposing time limits on families first emerged Tuesday, when Healey’s administration filed new regulations and guidelines detailing the state’s plans to limit the number of families allowed in the shelter system and to begin pushing families seeking shelter to a waitlist. As of Thursday, there were 7,404 families in the system, more than half of whom were staying in state-subsidized hotels or motels the state officially considered “overflow” shelters.
The newly filed regulations would allow state officials — with 30 days notice — to limit a family’s length of stay in the system, a step that advocates called unprecedented in Massachusetts since it adopted a right-to-shelter law in the 1980s.
State officials could also create a process under which a family could seek another “period of eligibility” or reapply for shelter, according to the regulations. And similar to its plan to prioritize certain families over others upon first entering the system, the state also left open the possibility of creating a similar framework for “previously sheltered families.”
In New York City, where the shelter system is also trying to absorb a crush of migrant families, Mayor Eric Adams set his own caps, imposing a 60-day limit on families in shelters there and a 30-day limit on single adults. Homeless advocates quickly criticized the plan, arguing that uprooting families after two months would “disrupt access to education” for thousands of children.
It could create a similar concern here in Massachusetts, where Healey on Friday estimated there were 10,000 children currently in Massachusetts’ emergency shelter system.
State officials have emphasized other steps they’ve taken to help move families out of shelters, including partnering with the federal government to help migrants apply for work authorization documents at a clinic later this month. The state said it would also offer housing vouchers to roughly 1,200 families who have been in the emergency shelter system longer than 18 months, and is piloting a job-training program in Salem for those living in shelters.
“We’ve laid out the parameters,” Healey said of the new rules. “We also have to be clear and transparent with the public about what’s actually happening.”
Healey on Wednesday scored a legal victory when a state judge rejected a request from Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based advocacy group, to temporarily block her administration’s plan to limit how many families are allowed in the system.
Attorneys from the group warned that without a court injunction, the state faces a “grim reality” of families and children, who are otherwise entitled to emergency shelter under the state mandate, being “forced to sleep on the streets, in cars, and in other unsafe conditions.”
The governor has argued the state simply no longer has the room or funds to keep allowing more families in. 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 fiscal 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 limit 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 scheduled to wrap formal sessions for the year on Nov. 15.
House Speaker Ron Mariano said in a statement Thursday that the chamber is working toward providing more funding “in the coming weeks.”
“However,” he said, “it is our understanding that the Administration’s decision to institute a cap and waitlist has never been tied to the passage of a supplemental budget.”