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‘Right to Shelter’ at a Tipping Point in Massachusetts

Without approval of additional funding, the state will imminently begin waitlisting families attempting to access the emergency shelter system.

The Days Inn in Greenfield is managed by ServiceNet as an emergency shelter for unhoused Massachusetts families. Image: Google Maps.

By Sarah Robertson

BOSTON – So many families are in need of emergency shelter in Massachusetts today that the cost of helping them is expected to greatly exceed the $325 million currently allocated to the state’s primary emergency housing assistance program for families with children. Citing these constraints, state officials have set limits on the number of families it will serve, and will start a waitlist for those with nowhere else to live. 

On Wednesday a Suffolk County Superior Court judge ruled against a civil rights group that filed an injunction attempting to prevent the changes.

“We do not have enough space, service providers, or funds to safely expand beyond 7,500 families,” Governor Maura Healey said at a recent press conference. “From that point on we will no longer be able to guarantee shelter placement for new families entering the system.”

As of Wednesday, 7,388 families were living in state-provided emergency housing; officials say they expect to reach the cap by the end of this week.

Under a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law, families and pregnant women had been guaranteed placement in the state’s Emergency Assistance (EA) shelters, unlike unaccompanied adults experiencing homelessness. In August the Healey administration declared a state of emergency due to the high demand for the program. Massachusetts is spending about $45 million every month on emergency housing, according to the governor; in September her office requested an additional $250 million, which the legislature has yet to act on.

“The trend continues to be driven by the arrival of families who are new to our country,” Healey said. “They are families, some expecting moms, and children – more than half of them are children. They are here lawfully, allowed in with the knowledge and consent of our federal government.”

Healey’s declaration cited obstacles refugees face in accessing permanent housing – a “confusing tangle” of immigration law and the need for federal work permits – as well as an overall lack of affordable housing as reasons families are spending more time in the system. The rate at which families are transitioning into homes, she wrote, has declined by two-thirds since 2019, resulting in fewer shelter openings. 

“This level of demand is not sustainable,” Healey said this month. “We need urgent support from the federal government, which bears ultimate responsibility for this situation.”

Lawyering Up

In an attempt to prevent the changes to the shelter program, the nonprofit group Lawyers for Civil Rights filed an injunction last week against the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC). An emergency hearing was held in a Boston courthouse on Tuesday, the day before the proposed changes were set to take effect. 

“In the absence of immediate intervention by this court… homeless families with children will be denied immediate shelter placement and left out in the cold,”  Lawyers for Civil Rights attorney Jacob Love said at the hearing. “This is a lot like the fire department creating a waitlist for families with ongoing house fires – delay in emergency services amounts to the denial services.”

Lawyers for Civil Rights filed the complaint on behalf of three families potentially facing homelessness, arguing that the EOHLC did not provide the legislature with the required 90-day notice prior to changing how the shelter program is administered, and that its clients would be harmed as a result.

On Wednesday Suffolk County Superior Court judge Debra Squires-Lee denied the motion, allowing the state to set limits on the program. 

“No one seriously disputes that families living without safe shelter are at risk and, in particular, that children without access to stable housing may be irreparably harmed,” Squires-Lee wrote in her decision. “But the burden the EOHLC faces is simply that it no longer has either the money or the space to provide such housing immediately to every family that is eligible for same.”

Arguing on behalf of the EOHLC, assistant attorney general Kimberly Parr said that the plaintiffs lacked standing to file the suit, and that the agency was operating within the authority granted by emergency regulations.

“The legislature specifies that in the event of a deficiency, individuals have no entitlement to services in excess of the amounts appropriated in this item,” Parr said. “The agency can’t keep spending and driving the line item into further deficiency, and the court doesn’t have the authority to order it to do that.”

The current demand for family shelters, according to court documents, is 77% higher than this fiscal year’s budget anticipated. Parr said the EA program will require an additional $210 million just to meet the needs of the 7,500 families under the cap.

“This isn’t about maintaining the status quo,” she said. “While the administration and the defendants are very sensitive to the impact that these regulations will have on families in the Commonwealth, they’re also constrained by very real financial constraints – not to speak of the constraints of identifying shelter units amid the housing crisis, a shortage of affordable housing in Massachusetts.”

Winter Approaching

Marion Hohn, a staff attorney at the Central West Justice Center, listened to Tuesday’s hearing because the judge’s decision will impact many of the people her legal aid organization seeks to help.

“Particularly in our service area in western Massachusetts, there are really no alternatives to the state-funded shelter system,” Hohn told The Shoestring. “What is going to happen to families who have no other place to stay – families with children – particularly as winter approaches?”

The total number of homeless families in the state is much greater than just those eligible for emergency shelter, Hohn said. She added that the shortage of shelters predates the influx of foreign migrants, but that the migration crisis has exacerbated existing issues.

“It’s complex and challenging, but at the end of the day, it’s a program for homeless children to have a roof over their heads,” Hohn said. “Our hope is the legislature will act and provide sufficient funding to this program.”

Just over half the families in the EA system are currently living in hotels and motels, including 45 families at the Days Inn in Greenfield. The Northampton-based agency ServiceNet is contracted by the state to provide these families with shelter, food, and other services. 

“It is our privilege to participate in addressing the humanitarian crisis that has been driving people to flee from countries torn by war and violence,” ServiceNet director of housing and shelter services Erin Forbush told The Shoestring. 

Without the right-to-shelter law, Forbush said, “we would not have the family shelter programs we do now, which provide a vital safety net for Massachusetts residents as well as for those who are new to our state.”

While most of the families at the Days Inn are originally from Haiti, others are from Central and South America, Africa, and the United States. 

“We’ve got families who are coming here from Haiti who are fleeing violence in their country, and then we have families from here in Massachusetts who are fleeing domestic violence,” said ServiceNet director of community relations Amy Timmins. 

Typically, ServiceNet houses 16 families at the Greenfield Family Inn on Federal Street, but with the addition of the Days Inn contract its caseload has grown to approximately 200 people. As long as the state provides the financial resources, Timmins said, ServiceNet will be able to hire staff to provide care to the families. The organization partners with local governments, schools, other nonprofits, medical centers, and churches to meet its clients’ needs.

“ServiceNet is not alone in this work,” Timmins said. “It’s important to illustrate how much of a network there is that surrounds these families with care.”

Responding to Crisis

Under the new limits, Governor Healey said that families with “high needs, including health and safety risks” would be prioritized for shelter placement. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts filed an amicus brief in the Lawyers for Civil Rights complaint pointing out the troubling vagueness of this mandate.

“The administration’s proposal, if allowed to proceed, would leave it with unfettered discretion to determine which desperate families will or will not obtain shelter, without any input from the legislature or the public,” the brief read, “and leave affected families in the dark about their legal rights and, quite literally, out in the cold.”

Healey said her administration is also responding to the crisis by pushing for work authorization permits and rental vouchers. She appointed Lt. General L. Scott Rice of the Massachusetts National Guard last month to serve as her emergency assistance director. On Tuesday Rice announced the state would make 1,200 housing vouchers available to families that have been living in emergency shelters for longer than 18 months. 

Under the new rules, officials will be allowed to set limits on the amount of time a family may spend in the emergency shelter system.

“We have families who have been in shelter for well over a year,” Healey said. “The more we can do to help them find their own footing, the more we can reduce the demand on state and local resources.”

In a letter she sent on August 8 announcing her emergency declaration to the Department of Homeland Security, Healey described the pressures migrant families are placing on the shelter system as a “federal crisis of inaction that is many years in the making.” 

“This state of emergency arises from numerous factors,” Healey wrote, “among them federal policies on immigration and work authorization, inadequate production of affordable housing over the last decade, and the end of COVID-era food and housing security programs. The need for action is urgent.”

Sarah Robertson is an independent journalist living in western Mass. This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2023 edition of the Montague Reporter.

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