The top Democrat in the Massachusetts House suggested the Hynes Convention Center in Boston is among the facilities that could serve as an overflow site to house homeless and migrant families as part of an effort by legislative leaders to relieve the tremendous strain on the state’s shelter system, which is quickly nearing its self-imposed limits.
House Speaker Ron Mariano identified the convention center in Back Bay in response to questions from reporters Wednesday. He noted that Governor Maura Healey’s administration would ultimately dictate where to establish one or more overflow sites should language inserted by House leaders into a multibillion-dollar spending bill become law.
Mariano did not identify any other locations he and legislative leaders have discussed.
The House overwhelmingly passed that spending bill — which includes funding for the shelter system as well as the provision requiring the overflow sites — Wednesday night. The 133-25 vote fell largely along party lines, with every Republican voting against it.
The package would dedicate $250 million toward managing the surge of homeless and migrant families that, state officials say, has pushed the emergency shelter program to the brink.
The bill would require the state to put $50 million toward creating one or more overflow sites for those not granted shelter — and then wait listed — under Healey’s plan to limit the system to 7,500 families. The House bill would also require those state-funded sites to open within 30 days of the bill being signed into law. Should the state fail to carry out the mandate, the bill would revoke the state-imposed limit until the sites are stood up.
There were 7,488 families in the program as of Wednesday.
Whether the $250 million could last the remainder of the fiscal year is unclear. Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s budget chair, said lawmakers are “confident saying that it will get us through the winter and into the early parts of the spring.”
Mariano said legislative leaders have discussed several options for overflow sites. He said that the Hynes “could be in play” after a reporter asked if it was among the options under discussion.
“It’s up to [the administration] as to how many we need. Do we need one? If we have [the] Hynes, will that do it? Or do we need multiple locations all across the state?” the Quincy Democrat said. “We talked about a lot of different ways to attack the problem. Some are multiple locations. Some are single big locations.”
Identifying shelter sites often takes into account a range of considerations, including how easily families can access bathrooms or showers, and it was not clear Wednesday whether the Hynes could ultimately be considered.
Karissa Hand, a Healey spokesperson, did not address whether Healey would weigh using the convention center.
“Our administration has had many conversations over the past few months as we explore all options for ensuring families have a safe place to sleep,” Hand said, reiterating that the governor has called on the “federal government to stand up a large scale overflow site.”
Officials at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which oversees the Hynes, are “aware” of Mariano’s comments, said spokesperson David Silk. “At this time, we have not been engaged regarding standing up an overflow emergency shelter site at any of our facilities,” he said.
The Hynes has been put to use in emergencies before. It was among the places used as mass vaccination sites during the COVID-19 pandemic; then-governor Charlie Baker was among those who received a shot there.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday before Mariano’s comments, Healey did not directly address the specifics of the House’s spending proposal. But she noted her administration has a $5 million plan in which United Way of Massachusetts Bay will help fund faith-based groups and other organizations to set up overnight sites for those not given immediate shelter.
“What’s important is that we make sure we have the funding for what we need to do here,” Healey said.
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 has framed her decision to limit the system to 7,500 families as a difficult but necessary step to ease the burden on a system that is running out of space, personnel, and money. Once shelters are at that limit, state officials intend to prioritize some homeless families over others for housing, and move those not initially approved for shelter to a wait list to idle.
But Healey’s move also raised questions about where families and children shut out of the emergency shelter system should go. Noting the system will soon hit the state-imposed cap, Mariano said Massachusetts must move quickly to find potential overflow sites, “make these places habitable, and get on with it.”
“We can’t stop them from coming,” Mariano said of migrant families seeking shelter. “We want to make sure they’re not out in the cold. We want to make sure they’re not sleeping on the street or in the [Boston] Common or in the airport or showing up in the hospital emergency rooms. These are all the alternatives that have been used in the past. And we don’t want that.”
Before passing the bill Wednesday, the House rejected a GOP-led amendment that would have barred those who have lived in the state for less than a year from being housed in the family emergency shelter system. That effectively would have excluded any migrant families who recently came here.
“Unless you turn the spigot off, that is never going to stop,” said Representative Peter J. Durant, a Spencer Republican who on Tuesday won a special election for a Senate seat.
House Democrats dismissed that, arguing it’s their duty to show compassion even as they recognize the surge of migrant families has strained state resources.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here for 5 years, 10 years, or one day,” said Representative Carlos González, a Springfield Democrat. “A baby out in the cold is a baby out in the cold. Who in their right mind would deny that baby shelter?”
The spending bill, which also is designed to close the books on the fiscal year that ended June 30, now moves to the Senate. Lawmakers are scheduled to end formal sessions for the year on Wednesday.