Shelter system could hit ‘cap’ this weekend as questions remain

Local News

The state’s emergency shelter system was about 100 families shy of its capacity Thursday, with dozens of new families enrolling each day.

At the Massachusetts State House last month, Gov. Maura Healey said the state’s emergency shelter system was nearing capacity.
Suzanne Kreiter/Boston Globe

In mid-October, Gov. Maura Healey announced that the state’s network of emergency shelters could not safely support more than 7,500 families as an influx of migrants and an ongoing housing crisis continue to overburden the system.

That capacity limit is expected to be hit in the coming days, with families who do not get shelter set to be placed on a waitlist. But questions remain about where those families will go as they wait. 

There were 7,404 families in the shelter system as of Thursday, according to data from the state. A total of 25 families enrolled in a 24-hour period. About half of those families are staying in hotels and motels, while the rest remain in traditional shelters. 

Room is running out, and it has been for months, prompting Healey to declare a state of emergency in early August and pressure the federal government for help.

In the current fiscal year, funding was only appropriated to support about 4,100 families, according to a recent declaration from Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Livable Communities Ed Augustus. This represents a 77% caseload increase over what was contemplated in the budget. It is the most families to be in the system at once since the state’s housing department assumed responsibility for the shelter system. 

Housing officials filed regulations detailing how the waitlist system will work this week. This information was added to a resource flier distributed by the state to those applying for shelter. It lists options for those being put on the waitlist, the first being a return to the “last safe place” they stayed.

People were also directed to the HomeBASE program, which helps pregnant and families with children pay rent and associated living expenses. It does not, however, connect people with housing options. Finally, the flier included information on how to apply for food stamps or get help from the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants. 

Resource Flier for Families… by Ross Cristantiello

A spokesperson for Healey told Politico this week that her office is working on identifying “potential overflow options.”

While people needing shelter sort through that information, many will stay on the waitlist. The state will continue to accept and process emergency shelter applications, and eligibility will not be affected. Families will be assessed on a variety of information to determine their waitlist priority. Those with an imminent risk of harm as determined by either the Department of Transitional Assistance or the Department of Children and Families, as well as families with very young children or other health concerns, will receive top priority. Subsequent priority levels will be determined by similar factors. 

Families that are placed on the waitlist will be able to call a phone number during business hours to check whether they remain on the list or if a shelter has been found for them. If there is no room available, the state will not be able to estimate how quickly shelter will be found. Families can also call the same line to update officials on changes to their health that may affect prioritization. 

The state says it will call, email, and text families once shelter is found for them. They will have until noon the following business day to respond. If they do not respond, the state will move to the next person on the waitlist. Families will not be removed from the list or lose their spot in line for not responding the first time. But they will be denied shelter if they receive three offers and do not respond in time. 

Families that accept shelter will have to arrive at their designated locations by 5 p.m., and the state will offer transportation assistance. 

The Healey administration faced a lawsuit from Lawyers for Civil Rights in the wake of the capacity announcement, with the group alleging that Augustus and his department failed to provide legally required transparency to the public and failed to provide the Legislature with a report justifying the changes. 

Healey and her administration have been accused of violating the state’s unique “right-to-shelter” law, which guarantees shelter for families with children and pregnant women. Healey has repeatedly said she is not “ending” the right-to-shelter in Massachusetts.

A judge quickly sided with the state, denying a request that would temporarily bar the state from capping the number of families offered shelter. 

To open up space in the shelter system, officials are working to transition people out of it. Healey said Thursday that she is weighing the idea of limiting how long families can remain in shelters, The Boston Globe reported. She did not offer further details on how long the time limit would be. 

Key to getting people out of the shelters, Healey said, is job training and connections with employers. She announced two new programs focused on that last month. 

But for people to work and gain the ability to support themselves outside of a shelter, they must have the proper permits. Since her emergency declaration, Healey has been calling on the Biden administration to help expedite the work authorization process for migrants, as many of them desperately want to work but are simply waiting on approval from the government. 

A team from the Department of Homeland Security was dispatched from Washington to assess the situation in Massachusetts last month. Now, the state is set to partner with DHS to host a work authorization clinic for migrants in the shelter system. It 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 federal government will collect and process work authorizations. 

U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey were among a group of lawmakers who sent a letter to the Biden administration Thursday calling for more to be done to help migrants get their work permits. 

“Many of our states have strong job markets and no shortage of employers eager to hire new arrivals who are ready to work,” the lawmakers wrote. “For many new arrivals, the problem is simply their inability to have their paperwork processed in a timely fashion. And in the absence of work authorizations, too many individuals must turn to the informal labor market, where they are at heightened risk of exploitation and abuses ranging from wage theft to unsafe working conditions that harm all workers.”