Healey administration sued after announcing cap on emergency shelters

Local News

Lawyers for Civil Rights say the changes will leave “destitute women and children out on the street.”

Mass. Gov. Maura Healey announced earlier in October that the state’s emergency shelter system would soon reach capacity. Suzanne Kreiter/Boston Globe

Two weeks ago, Gov. Maura Healey announced that Massachusetts’ emergency shelter system would soon reach capacity, and that the state would implement a waitlist system. Now, the state is facing a lawsuit seeking an emergency court hearing and a temporary restraining order to stop it from implementing these changes. 

The lawsuit was filed Friday by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of “three families on the brink of homelessness,” against the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities and its head, Secretary Ed Augustus. Lawyers for Civil Rights allege the state failed to provide legally required transparency to the public and failed to provide the Legislature with a report justifying the changes. 

“Without this Court’s swift intervention, those changes will deny shelter to eligible families, leaving destitute women and children out on the street,” attorneys wrote in a complaint filed in Suffolk Superior Court. 

Healey’s office did not immediately return a request for comment Monday. 

The shelter system has been overburdened for months amid the state’s housing crisis and an influx of migrants. After declaring a state of emergency in early August, Healey spent months pressing federal officials for more resources and action that allow newly-arrived migrants to obtain their work permits faster. Hotels across the state were contracted to help house those in need, and National Guard members were called up to provide assistance. 

But Healey said that the state is simply running out of room. 

“The reality we are facing now is this: We do not have enough space, service providers, or funds to safely expand beyond 7,500 families. We expect to hit that limit at the end of the month,” she said on Oct. 16. As of Friday, there were 7,268 families enrolled in the shelter system, according to publicly available data. 

In Massachusetts, the unique “right-to-shelter” law guarantees shelter for families with children and pregnant women. Healey specifically emphasized that the state is “not ending” the right-to-shelter law, and that all who are eligible for shelter will retain their eligibility. 

“It is illegal and unconscionable for the State to rush these changes into place and force homeless families into the streets just as the winter months are approaching,” Litigation Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights Oren Sellstrom said in a statement. “The law requires the State to proceed in an orderly manner, to hear from the public, and to give the Legislature a chance to weigh in on — and potentially forestall — these draconian changes.”

An artificial cap?

Lawyers for Civil rights said the state was required to either hold a public hearing or initiate a notice and comment period before implementing the changes that Healey announced. The state was also required to submit a report to the Legislature 90 days before altering the level of benefits under the emergency housing assistance program. The Healey administration did neither, Lawyers for Civil Rights allege. 

Three Massachusetts residents are listed as plaintiffs on the complaint: Gloria Alcarraz, Soronx de la Cruz, and Dieula Alectine. All are struggling to find housing while supporting children, and see the emergency shelter system as a lifeline, their attorneys wrote. 

According to Lawyers for Civil Rights, the state is set to begin imposing “an artificial ‘cap’” on services. Earlier this month, Healey said that the state will continue to engage with each family that applies for shelter, and those with “high needs” such as “health and safety risks” will be prioritized. Those who are not immediately connected with shelter will be placed on a waiting list. 

Lawyers for Civil Rights said Monday that an emergency hearing is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in Suffolk County Superior Court regarding the matter. 

“Without court intervention, these material changes will cause immeasurable harm to desperate children, families, and pregnant women who are eligible for emergency shelter today but will be denied that right as of an arbitrary Nov. 1 deadline,” Sellstrom said in a statement. “They will be turned away from emergency shelter, with every day bringing new threats to their safety, health, and wellbeing.”  

Housing advocates to demonstrate

Housing advocates are planning a demonstration in front of the Massachusetts State House on Tuesday. They are calling on the Healey administration to “uphold the right to shelter” and on lawmakers to approve Healey’s request for $250 million to support the shelter system. 

Healey has said that her administration is focusing on securing job training and work permits for those in the shelter system, so that they can support their families and exit the system to make room for others. Her office announced Monday that it would be partnering with the Department of Homeland Security to host a work authorization clinic for migrants in the shelter system. 

This will take place during the week of Nov. 13, and the state will be scheduling appointments and providing transportation from shelters to the clinic. Workers from the Biden administration will be onsite to collect and process work authorizations. DHS officials were dispatched from Washington weeks ago to assess the situation in Massachusetts.

“Many shelter residents want to work but face significant barriers to getting their work authorizations,” Healey said in a statement. “This clinic will be critical for building on the work that our administration has already been leading to connect more migrants with work opportunities, which will help them support their families and move out of emergency shelter into more stable housing options.”