Oct 30, 2023 - News

Massachusetts braces to cap emergency family shelter as system reaches capacity

Illustration of a pile of suitcases on a cot.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Massachusetts is bracing to start turning families away from shelter as early as this week, a first since the state's right-to-shelter law took effect in 1983.

Why it matters: The cap could force families onto the street until they come off the state's waitlist, which civil rights advocates call a violation of the shelter law.

Catch up fast: Gov. Maura Healey said the state won't be able to guarantee homeless people spots in the emergency family shelter system once it reaches capacity.

  • She predicted the state would reach its threshold, about 7,500 families, by the end of the month. After that, families will be put on a waitlist.

The latest: Massachusetts had 7,332 families in shelter as of Monday afternoon, per the state's dashboard.

  • Once the waitlist starts, families applying for emergency assistance must complete a questionnaire to determine if they have any clinical or safety concerns that could give them priority to move up the waitlist.

What's happening: Advocates who once praised the Healey administration's response to the shelter crisis are pushing back against the cap, which is expected to start Nov. 1.

  • Lawyers for Civil Rights on Friday filed a class-action lawsuit against the state in Superior Court, calling for a judge to stop the state from imposing the impending cap.
  • Housing advocates plan to protest the cap tomorrow and submit recommendations for alternatives to the state.

The other side: Healey's office and the state's housing office declined to comment except to confirm it's reviewing the lawsuit, per a spokesperson.

  • L. Scott Rice, the state's new emergency assistance director, said in a statement the Healey administration is urging the federal government to help address the shelter crisis, "especially when it comes to the need for a large-scale overflow site for families to stay until a shelter unit becomes available."

What's next: State officials are trying to get migrants to work faster in hopes that they can transition out of shelter sooner.

  • The Department of Homeland Security and state officials will host a work authorization clinic for migrants in the family shelter system the week of Nov. 13.
  • Susan Church, COO of the state's Office for Refugees and Immigrants, previously told Axios some new arrivals were struggling to get quick legal help with their work permit applications, while others had their requests filed incorrectly because of unlicensed legal practitioners.
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