Immigration

Mass. to begin denying shelter beds to homeless families, putting names on waitlist

On Wednesday, the number of families in emergency shelter in Massachusetts stood at 7,488, according to the state

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The number of homeless families seeking emergency shelter in Massachusetts is nearing a 7,500-family threshold, past which Democratic Gov. Maura Healey says the state can no longer accommodate them and will instead place families on a waitlist, prioritizing those with the highest needs.

Healey has said she doesn’t want to see families out on the street but that the state has essentially reached its shelter capacity. The spike in demand is being driven in part by a surge of migrant families entering the state.

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Massachusetts joins other locales struggling under an influx of migrant families seeking shelter. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has announced he is limiting shelter stays for migrant families with children to 60 days. In Chicago, officials have looked to relocate migrants seeking asylum from police stations and the city’s airports to winterized camps with massive tents.

On Wednesday, the number of families in emergency shelter in Massachusetts stood at 7,488, according to the state.

At least one immigrant aid organization — La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts — said later Wednesday that it appeared the cap had taken effect as they tried to place a family in a shelter.

“We were informed we hit the cap and due to the cap, families are being put on a waitlist,” said Cherlin Dubon, triage case specialist for the group.

While Healey is waiting on the federal government to set up an overflow site, lawmakers are flexing their muscles by requiring it as part of granting her $250 million dollar ask to support services.

“We want to make sure they're not out in the cold. We want to make sure that they're not sleeping on the street or in the common or, you know, in the airport or showing up in the hospital emergency rooms," House Speaker Ron Mariano told NBC10 Boston Wednesday.

They’re earmarking $50 million for an overflow site with a 30-day deadline, $75 million for schools and $65 million for additional housing, food and training. But at this point, it’s not clear if that $250 million will be enough.

“I think we feel confident in saying that it will it'll get us through through the winter and into the early parts of the spring," House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz said.

And Lawyers for Civil Rights say time is of the essence as winter approaches.

“If we don't set up an overflow site, those are the scenes that are going to unfold in all of our communities and our public parks. We don't want that for anybody. This is a matter of public safety. This is a matter of public health," explained Ivan Espinosa Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.

And critics argue Healey’s decision to cap shelter placements violates the state’s “right-to-shelter” law. Under the four-decade-old law, Massachusetts is legally required to provide emergency shelter to eligible families.

Under Healey's plan, women, young children and those with acute medical needs and health issues will be given priority. The state is also considering limiting how long a family can stay in a shelter, Healey said.

With winter not far off, officials are scrambling to prevent families from ending up on street. A flyer the state has prepared to hand to families denied shelter suggests a handful of options, the first being to “return to the last safe place you stayed.”

Denying families emergency shelter could force some into unsafe living conditions, said Kelly Turley, director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

She and other homeless advocates have pressed the Legislature to approve money for a large living site similar to that described by Mariano.

“We’re very concerned that after 40 years of having the right to shelter, that the administration is moving forward with their plan without making sure congregate shelter is available,” Turley said.

Advocates welcoming new migrants to the state say they’re concerned about how to help those with no friends or family and nowhere to stay.

“When people come, especially those with babies, do we send them to the street?” said Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Boston. “We are not sending them to the street, so we need a place to send them."

Families are currently housed in hundreds of locations in 90 cities and towns in a range of facilities, from traditional shelters to temporary sites like college dorms.

The state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities last week issued guidance on the coming changes to the shelter system.

Top priority will be given to families at imminent risk of domestic violence or who have an infant up to 3 months old, have family members with an immunocompromised condition, are experiencing a high-risk pregnancy or who include a family member with a medical device, specifically a tracheostomy tube. Additional priority levels will take into account the age and medical needs of family members.

Under the guidance, families will be offered available shelter units based on their position on the waitlist. The list will be refreshed once a day and those eligible for shelter will be contacted by email, phone call and text. Families on the waitlist for six months or longer will have to undergo another assessment.

The Associated Press and NBC10 Boston
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