Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll warned Thursday that Massachusetts’s emergency shelter system is on the verge of being completely full as the state struggles to deal with a housing crisis and an influx of migrants.
Driscoll’s comments came a day after federal officials with the Department of Homeland Security visited Massachusetts to take stock of the situation and meet with local leaders.
Speaking during a live interview with El Mundo’s La Hora del Café, Driscoll said that there are almost 7,500 families, or close to 23,000 people, enrolled in the shelter system. Some days see as many as 40 new families coming into the state. Publicly available data from the state released Thursday shows just under 6,900 families in the system, with 33 new families enrolling between Wednesday and Thursday.
“We have a lot of communities who have stepped up, but at some point we’re going to run out of rooms and I think that’s very, very soon,” Driscoll said. “Unfortunately, we just don’t have the capacity.”
Gov. Maura Healey and her administration have been publicly pleading with federal officials to help improve the situation since declaring a state of emergency in early August. Healey has been pushing specifically for extra funding and regulatory changes to speed up the work authorization process for new arrivals.
Ahead of the DHS visit this week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Healey that the department is considering her recommendations and acknowledged the fact that labor shortages could be addressed with expedited work permits.
“We recognize the challenges highlighted and are eager to support the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I appreciate your approach and willingness to view newly arrived noncitizens in the Commonwealth as an opportunity to meet your workforce needs. We agree on the importance of providing employment authorization to those eligible,” Mayorkas wrote in a letter to Healey Monday.
The DHS visit, which Massachusetts officials had been working to secure for weeks, was intended to improve knowledge of the challenges facing the state and bring back recommendations to Washington.
The DHS officials met with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu Wednesday in Mattapan, The Boston Herald reported. The officials did not make any concrete commitments but appeared open to multiple recommendations, including a one-week work permit processing workshop led by DHS. The federal officials were also reportedly open to waiving an online work permit application fee.
Massachusetts has a unique “right-to-shelter” law, which requires officials to provide shelter and services to homeless families, pregnant women, and now migrant families. Asked about revisiting that law and potentially changing it, Driscoll kept the door open for that possibility, but said that lawmakers would make the call.
“I think that will be up to the Legislature because it is an existing law. And there are plenty of states who don’t have a right to shelter law that are also getting inundated with individuals coming here. So I think we’ll see going forward,” she said.
Healey was asked in August about getting rid of the law, even temporarily. At the time, she said she never planned on and did not have the authority to end the right-to-shelter policy. But in mid-September, Healey’s comments were less definitive.
“Well, obviously, that was a law that predates a lot of what has happened geopolitically and the forces that we’ve seen and the likes of what we’ve seen to date,” Healey said, according to State House News Service. “That’ll be up for discussion [and] debate by others for sure.”
The DHS officials also met with Woburn Mayor Scott Galvin at a local hotel hosting migrant families. As of Thursday, 3,200 of the families enrolled in the shelter system were staying in hotels and motels, according to state data. Almost 3,600 were staying in traditional shelters.
Galvin expressed frustration after the meeting, telling the Herald that the system is not sustainable because of the right-to-shelter law.
“It was a bit of a letdown,” Galvin told the paper. “We continue to express our concerns about the sustainability of the whole program that the commonwealth is undertaking because of an outdated right-to-shelter law.”
The Healey administration, on the other hand, said the meetings with DHS officials were productive and included sharing strategies on how to maximize federal resources, according to Politico.
But worries remain for Driscoll, especially as the weather gets colder and rooms fill up more and more.
“I think the bottom line is that we’re very close to being filled. So there is not going to be literally any room at the inn. And that’s worrisome. We don’t want families outside; it’s going to be very cold weather here. A lot of these folks who are coming have very young children,” Driscoll said. “So we’re cognizant of the challenge. We’re also, I think, trying to do everything we can. It’s a humanitarian crisis, and we’re doing everything we can, but we’re going to need more help because we’re definitely at capacity.”
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