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Amid crush of migrants, Mass. lawmakers urge Biden to give state equal share of shelter funding

Governor Maura Healey has twice written to the Biden administration, imploring officials to grant work permits to the thousands of migrants who have overwhelmed the state’s shelter system. Above, people listened as staff discussed work authorizations at a clinic in Reading last month.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Just days after Governor Maura Healey signed off on a spending bill that will funnel hundreds of millions toward Massachusetts’ overwhelmed emergency shelter system, the state’s delegation in Washington is pleading for more.

In the letter, signed by the entire all-Democratic delegation and shared first with the Globe on Tuesday, members wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, demanding that the Biden administration divvy up funding for migrant shelters equally among states to ensure that the state gets more money to help keep up with the rising demand.

The Biden administration recently requested $1.4 billion from Congress to provide shelter grants to local governments and nonprofits across the country to provide food, shelter, and other services for new arrivals to the states. The request was included as part of a broader supplemental spending bill the Biden administration is seeking to bolster its efforts to respond to the surge in migrants at the nation’s southern border, and would put more money toward hiring additional border patrol agents and asylum officers, as well as detention beds for those who cross the border and enter federal custody.

The Massachusetts congressional delegation argues President Biden’s plan doesn’t come close to covering the costs states are currently shouldering, especially states such as Massachusetts and New York that have seen large numbers of migrants arrive seeking aid and shelter. This year, Massachusetts only received about $2 million in funding from the shelter and services grant program, which local governments and nonprofits have to apply for.

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The lawmakers are requesting an equitable distribution that takes into consideration factors such as the number of arrivals and previous allocations, officials said.

Combined, New York’s cities and nonprofits received $107 million in funding last year. Illinois received $31 million. Washington, D.C., received $5.1 million. The bulk of the funding went to border states like Texas and Arizona.

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“The $1.4 billion supplemental request is a fraction of the collective need,” Massachusetts lawmakers wrote. “As such, we urge you to distribute all future SSP funds equitably, ensuring a fair and humanitarian response to the surge in migration.”

As of late October, Massachusetts officials said the state had spent $115 million on sheltering families, more than one-third of its initial $325 million emergency shelter budget.

As many as 40 families arrive each day in Massachusetts seeking temporary housing, the delegation said, but only around 20 families exit the system each day.

The crush of homeless families in the state’s emergency shelter system has become so burdensome that last month, the state effectively suspended a decades-old law that guaranteed homeless families a right to shelter and started letting homeless and migrant families spend the night in converted conference rooms in a state transportation building in Boston.

Healey imposed a limit of 7,500 families, citing a strained program that was running out of space, personnel, and money.

State officials have now prioritized some families over others for shelter; those who don’t make the cut are placed on a waitlist. As of Monday, the waitlist had grown to 175 families.

For decades, homeless families have been guaranteed shelter under a 1980s-era law in Massachusetts, the only state 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.

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In August, Healey declared a state of emergency over the shelter system and, weeks later, said she would activate up to 250 members of the National Guard to help families living in hotels who don’t have a contracted service provider, typically a nonprofit, to help them access medical care, find transportation, or organize food deliveries.

The state has also opened two new family “welcome centers” and a temporary shelter on Joint Base Cape Cod, as well as directed an infusion of money to local organizations helping migrants with case management and legal assistance.

The delegation’s plea Tuesday is not the first time local leaders have begged the Biden administration to do more on what has become a crisis in cities nationwide.

Representative Jake Auchincloss, Democrat of Newton, asked Biden to send a team to “assess” the situation here, and Healey has twice written to the administration, imploring officials to grant work permits to the thousands of migrants who have overwhelmed the state’s shelter system and to send money to help the state provide resources such as housing and transportation. The congressional delegation has done the same.

“[Shelter] funding has not been equitably distributed, leaving Massachusetts to expend increasingly large sums of money to provide humanitarian aid to arriving migrants,” they wrote. “This presents a significant challenge.”


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross.