Shelter system will be full by end of month, capacity limits to be implemented, Healey says

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There will be no changes to the state’s “right-to-shelter” law, but the Massachusetts emergency shelter system will reach its limit in the coming weeks.

At the Massachusetts State House, Gov. Maura Healey provided an update on the state’s emergency family shelter system.
Suzanne Kreiter/Boston Globe

Gov. Maura Healey announced Monday that the state’s overburdened emergency shelter system will soon reach capacity, and that Massachusetts will no longer be able to guarantee shelter placement for families coming to the state. 

“Our shelter system cannot expand indefinitely; this level of demand is not sustainable,” she said. “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.”

There were close to 7,000 families in the shelter system as of Sunday, Healey said. That includes around 23,000 people in 90 cities and towns. More than half of them are children. The number of people in the system is more than twice the number that were in it a year ago. Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll first warned that the system was nearing capacity late last week. 

The surge continues to be driven by migrants coming into the country. Healey stressed that these people are in Massachusetts legally and that the state continues to need their valuable skills. 

Healey clarified that there would be no change to the state’s existing “right-to-shelter” law, which requires officials to provide shelter and services to homeless families, pregnant women, and now migrant families. 

“I want to be very clear with the public: We are not ending the right-to-shelter law,” she said. 

But by the end of October, Massachusetts will no longer be able to guarantee shelter placement for new families entering the system. Officials 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, Healey said. Those who are not immediately connected with shelter will be placed on a waiting list. 

Exit strategies

Some of the families in the shelter system have been there for over a year, and Healey said she is focusing on getting them ready to exit it. 

“The more we can do to help them find their own footing, the quicker we can reduce demand on state and local resources and free up space for other families,” she said. 

A key part of moving people through the shelter system is connecting them with affordable, stable housing. The system is meant to be a “short-term, emergency option,” and those that have been in the system for more than 15 months will now receive priority for rehousing and rental assistance initiatives like HomeBASE. This program helps cover some rental fees, security deposits, and moving expenses for those looking to stabilize their living situations. It also provides stipends to deal with ongoing housing costs. 

Citing the high housing costs across the state, Healey said that expanding access to affordable housing and lowering costs will be a top priority moving forward. 

Healey has also been publicly pressing the Biden administration to help speed up the process through which new arrivals can get authorized to work in Massachusetts. 

“They want to work. They want to support their families. And we have thousands of open jobs going unfilled here in our state. So we are not waiting any longer,” she said Monday. 

In addition to maintaining the pressure on federal officials, Healey said that her administration is looking for ways to connect those in the shelter system with job opportunities. Business leaders have asked for help filling job openings, and two new programs announced Monday aim to help do that. 

The state is partnering with Commonwealth Corporation, the state workforce agency,  to create a new job skills training program to connect employers with people in the shelter system that are still waiting for their work permits to be authorized. While they wait, these people will get “on-the-job training and skills development” so that they can work as soon as they are authorized. The program will begin as a pilot in Salem, but will likely expand over time. Businesses have specifically asked the state for a program like this, Healey said. It will last “as long as it needs to,” she added. 

The second new program is a connection between MassHire’s regional workforce boards and career centers with shelters. The goal is to assess the skills and work readiness of those that already have their work authorization. Initially, 14 shelter sites across the state, with approximately 1,500 families, will be involved. MassHire South Shore is already working with Dunkin’ and a local shelter to fill 30 openings. 

The Healey administration will launch a Pro Bono program with immigration organizations Tuesday to provide legal services to more than 100 families. Later this month, state officials will begin contracting with five legal services agencies to provide services at 25 shelters across the state.

Healey first declared a state of emergency regarding the shelter system in early August. Since then the state has opened two new welcome centers, set up legal services programs, called up National Guard members, and contracted with hotels and motels to provide enough shelter and services. 

As of Monday, 3,270 families enrolled in the shelter system were staying in hotels and motels, compared to 3,629 in traditional shelters, according to data from the state. Healey said that, recently, some hotels have decreased their capacity for people in need of shelter and have opted not to renew their contracts with the state.

A new appointee

The governor also announced the appointment of Lieutenant General L. Scott Rice as emergency assistance director. He will be tasked with helping those families who have been in the shelter system the longest with exiting into more permanent housing. Rice, who has 40 years of experience with the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard, led emergency response and post-disaster recovery efforts during the Patrick and Baker administrations. 

“It is important to me that our state succeeds in meeting this humanitarian challenge. I’ll bring all my values and all I’ve learned to bear on this crisis,” Rice said. 

Rice will lead the Healey’s administration’s Incident Command Team, which was launched in May and will coordinate with local officials to coordinate the “new phase” of the shelter system announced Monday. 

Calling on lawmakers, feds for help

The governor proposed a spending bill last month to the Legislature that included $250 million to deal with the crisis. It is currently before a House committee. 

“Most of it is about how are we going to pay for this?” House Speaker Ron Mariano said Sunday during an appearance on WCVB’s “On The Record” program. “And how do we keep this from eating up the money we already put to the homeless folks that were born here, that have difficulty surviving in this economy.”

Mariano said that the $250 million would not cover all the expenses created by the crisis moving forward, and may not even cover them through the end of October. 

A Department of Homeland Security team was dispatched to Massachusetts from Washington last week to assess the situation, visit shelters, and meet with local leaders like Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. Healey said she hopes that their recommendations lead to action such as the creation of a congregate care site, after months of communicating with federal officials like Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. She also met with the White House chief of staff last week. 

“This is a federal problem that demands a federal solution,” Healey said. There have been productive discussions recently with federal officials and “nothing should signal that the feds have said ‘no’ to us,” she added.