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As shelter system struggles, Healey to launch pilot program to house, employ migrants

Demand for shelter has far outpaced supply, leading to some migrants sleeping in at Logan Airport's Terminal E.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

As the number of new migrant arrivals continues to grow with no sign of stopping, the Healey administration plans to spend $10 million on a new program to help migrant families exit the state’s overburdened emergency shelters and launch independent lives complete with jobs and housing.

The still-not-public pilot program, modeled after a decades-old federal program that partners with local agencies to resettle refugees, would help up to 400 migrant families secure long-term housing and employment in Massachusetts.

The program “is ambitious and speaks to the need of this particular moment,” said Rabbi James Greene, CEO of Jewish Family Service, which helps resettle hundreds of refugees and migrants each year in the western part of the state.

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“It could be a model for how we support humanitarian entrance to the US,” he said.

The pilot program, which the Boston Herald first reported Sunday, has not yet been publicly announced. However, Healey administration officials and others briefed on the plans confirmed the broad outlines to the Globe.

For example, the pilot would largely be funded by a $10 million line item from a spending bill signed into law by Governor Maura Healey in December and would help bolster resettlement agencies like Greene’s by providing money to increase staffing and other supports.

There’s no specific formula in the legislation for how to spend the money, which is broadly assigned to “resettle and support refugees and immigrants.” But the spending bill gave Healey the discretion in how to allocate it.

“Our administration believes that resettlement agencies have an important role to play in connecting newly arrived families with stable housing, and we appreciate their existing work to provide legal services to families in Emergency Assistance shelters,” wrote Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Healey, in a statement. “We’re grateful to the Legislature for making this funding available and look forward to standing up this program.”

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The Executive Office of Health and Human Services is in talks with Massachusetts’ eight resettlement agencies to be part of the program, Hand confirmed.

For months, the Healey administration has struggled to accommodate the influx of homeless and migrant families. The system is still at capacity, according to state data, and as of last week, there were more than 540 families on the state’s waitlist. That demand far outpaces the roughly 180 families the state has been able to accommodate at overflow shelters in Quincy, a former courthouse in Cambridge, and elsewhere. Those without a place to sleep at shelters or overflow sites have been sleeping in the airport’s Terminal E or showing up at emergency rooms in Boston.

The influx of migrant families has strained state finances. Healey last week unveiled a state budget plan that proposes spending $325 million on the emergency shelter program, but that’s well short of what’s needed. Her administration believes actual costs in both this year and next will top $915 million.

On Wednesday, the governor filed a separate plan that calls for dipping into the state’s $800 million-plus surplus spending account to help cover shelter funding.

According to a biweekly report from the Healey administration, roughly half the 3623 families currently in emergency shelters are refugees, migrants, or asylum-seekers.

The agencies would receive funds to work with those migrant families to find an apartment or other long-term solution, as well as help refugee families who were displaced from their home countries.

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The pilot program, which mirrors a similar refugee resettlement program in New York, would work alongside the state’s housing office and its decade-old HomeBASE program to divert homeless families from shelters or hotels by covering burdensome move-in costs, such as security deposits or the first and last month’s rent for families who qualify for emergency assistance shelters.

While the final contract language remains in flux, two sources with direct knowledge of the state’s plan said the pilot program would take $8 million from the $10 million allocated in the supplemental budget to help migrant families currently in the emergency shelter system move into more permanent housing and provide assistance navigating state and federal resources for up to a year.

Another $2.5 million — $2 million taken from the spending plan and $500,000 taken from the fiscal year 2024 budget — would go toward helping refugees arriving in Massachusetts to get resources before they enter the shelter system in the first place.

For decades, the state’s eight resettlement agencies have administered the federal refugee resettlement program in Massachusetts, meaning they employ federal money to provide cash and medical assistance to new refugees, as well as case management services, English classes, and job training — services designed to help refugees attain self-sufficiency.

They also deliver services and benefits to those classified as “humanitarian parolees,” which is the legal status of most migrant families seeking shelter in Massachusetts.

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The new pilot program won’t look much different than the work the agencies already do, they’d just be doing that work on a larger scale.

“Our mission is to make sure people are safe, fed, have clothing, and have a roof over their head at night,” said Marjean Perhot, who leads the effort to serve refugees and immigrants at Catholic Charities of Boston, which expects to serve more than 200 refugees by next September.

Those running the agencies, including Perhot, say the extra boost from the state will allow for more staffing and interpreters who can help migrant families through the process of searching for jobs and housing, as well as obtaining legal support.

Jeff Thielman, CEO of the International Institute of New England, said his agency would ideally hire as many as 13 new employees to coordinate apartment searches, enroll children in schools, sign families up for medical insurance, and prepare people for job interviews, among other things.

Thielman’s organization already has a contract with the Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants to provide basic case management and immigration legal assistance to migrant families in unsupported hotels, so while they are suited to do the work, “it will require people,” Thielman said, which is expensive.

Even so, helping people get on their feet, in the long run, will be less expensive than providing services to the more than 7,000 families living in shelters.

“If we’re successful, we will have a model that can be used to welcome migrant families who come to the Commonwealth that is less costly than what we’re spending right now on the emergency shelter program,” he said.

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Greene, the CEO of Jewish Family Services, said he is pleased that the state’s effort aligns with a Jewish tradition in helping others — in this case, migrant families — build a successful life.

“There is this idea that neighbor is not a geographic term, it’s a moral concept,” he said. “There is a real understanding that each of these families is not just a number.”

Globe correspondent Daniel Kool and John Hilliard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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