Updated Nov 7, 2023 - Politics

Massachusetts tapping community groups to create overflow shelters for migrants

Gen. L. Scott Rice, the state's emergency assistance director, speaks from a podium in the State House.

Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice, the state's emergency assistance director. Photo: Steph Solis/Axios

Massachusetts is tapping community groups to set up overnight shelters for homeless families on the state's new emergency shelter waitlist.

Driving the news: The state and United Way of Massachusetts Bay announced Tuesday a $5 million grant program for grassroots organizations setting up overflow shelters for waitlisted families with nowhere to stay, says Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice, the state's emergency assistance director.

  • Massachusetts is allotting $5 million from a state housing trust fund, which will then be backfilled by federal housing aid, a housing spokesperson said.

Why it matters: The state will stop immediately placing eligible families in emergency shelter once the system hits an enrollment threshold of 7,500, raising concerns that families will be on the streets until they come off a waitlist.

Zoom in: United Way will coordinate with community groups to set up overflow shelters, which could be school buildings, community centers or other gathering spaces with restrooms and heat.

Yes, but: Rice and Bob Giannino, president and CEO of United Way in Massachusetts, said they didn't have an immediate estimate on how many families the grant program could help.

Context: The state emergency family shelter has seen unprecedented demand due to an increase in homeless residents and an influx of migrants coming from the southern U.S. border.

Catch up fast: Gov. Maura Healey warned last month that the state’s emergency family shelter system would max out at around 7,500 and announced a waitlist and skills training for migrants awaiting work permits.

  • After a failed legal challenge, state officials said last week they expected to hit the threshold and implement the cap early this month.

The latest: The state had 7,439 families enrolled in the emergency shelter system as of noon Tuesday, Rice says.

  • The state plans to mobilize another 75 National Guards members, in addition to the 300 members already active, to help with shelter operations and the upcoming work authorization clinics.

Between the lines: The announcement comes as the House unveiled its supplemental spending bill, which includes $250 million for the emergency family shelter system — the amount Healey proposed in her version.

  • The House bill, however, calls for $50 million for the state to set up overflow shelters within 30 days, or else the state would have to lift its cap of 7,500 families in emergency shelter.
  • State officials declined to comment on the House bill, except to say the governor is reviewing the details.

Meanwhile, housing advocates sent top Democrats an 11-page letter with recommendations to address the shelter crisis.

  • Their asks include expedited access to certain housing benefits, such as HomeBASE, and bringing 1,000 public housing units online.

Editor's note: The story has been updated to clarify that the grant program is being funded by a state housing trust fund, which will be backfilled by federal housing aid.

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