"Cold" Vigil Attendees Knock Shelter Waitlist

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BOSTON (State House News Service— About 90 families were on a waiting list Monday for state-funded shelter, advocates said during a Monday night vigil where they called on Beacon Hill's powerful to steer money towards an escalating crisis.

"We're here to show support for those families and those children and, honestly, we're here a little bit out of desperation. I certainly feel very helpless about what we can do right now. I think we just need to be able to stand up here in front of this building, and in front of you, and say we need help," said Andrea Park, director of community driven advocacy at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

Advocates held a moment of silence for the families who have been turned away and placed on the waitlist, and are now left to look for a safe place to sleep as nights get colder. And as Thanksgiving approaches, they called on Beacon Hill Democrats to coalesce around a plan.

"We want to honor the families for their resiliency, their struggle, and honor their efforts to build a better life for themselves whether they're long-term Massachusetts residents, or newly arrived and recently become Massachusetts residents. We want to have a moment of silence and a moment of hope that we can do better by them," added Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

About $250 million in aid for the strained shelter system is being held up in House-Senate negotiations, after lawmakers last week failed to hammer out a compromise before formal sessions ends for the year. The bills, which Republicans in both branches opposed, now needs unanimous approval during lightly attended informal sessions.

The sticking point seems to be $50 million, which the House wants to be dedicated for overflow shelters.

The House's plan would give Gov. Maura Healey's administration 30 days to stand up this shelter, to take in those who are deemed eligible under state law for Emergency Assistance (EA) but for whom there is no room. If the administration does not get an overflow site up and running in a month, Healey would need to remove the cap she has imposed on the number of families the shelter system will take in.

The Senate did not specify a breakdown of how the $250 million in aid would need to be spent once handed over to the EA system.

"Recent reports of families sleeping at Logan Airport, and now at a temporary overflow site at MassDOT, are emblematic of the need for funding that is specifically reserved for overflow shelter options with greater capacity," Mariano said in a statement on Monday. "The House remains committed to ensuring that families in Massachusetts have somewhere safe and warm to sleep at night, and will continue to urge the Administration to identify additional overflow shelter sites going forward."

Rep. Marjorie Decker echoed Mariano's statements at the vigil. She repeatedly called for Healey to "have a plan," after Mariano spent the last few months saying he did not have information he needed from the administration.

"Are you cold? I'm cold," Decker said to start off her speech, as temperatures dipped below 28 degrees in front of the State House where she was the only member of the Democrat-controlled House or Senate to join advocates.

"And so I think about how many children tonight do not have a place safe to sleep. Who will be staying in a place not meant for human habitation," she said. "I stand here not only to support Speaker Mariano, but to thank him, my deep gratitude to be part of the House of Representatives and a speaker who has stood tall and strong on the right-to-shelter law, who has been clear that what we want from the administration is a plan."

Asked if she believed House and Senate negotiators would reach a deal before Thanksgiving, Decker replied, "Listen, all I can tell you is that I know that leaders in both chambers are working towards this. Nobody is happy ... no one. So I know everyone is working to the best of their abilities."

As Democrats have been unable to agree on a path forward, more families have been turned away from shelter in the past week.

As of Monday, Nov. 13 -- three days after the shelters hit Healey's limit of 7,500 families -- there were 22 families on the waitlist to be placed in housing. A week later, on Nov. 20, Turley said there were about 90.

"A waitlist is not a plan. A waitlist is not safety," Decker said. "We also know that for every family that is on a waitlist, there will be many many families who never get to that waitlist. We know for families who get on that waitlist, many of them will have no way to be contacted."

The Healey administration has said it plans to text, call and email the waitlisted people when there's a spot ready.

Advocates have also voiced concerns that people without a consistent place to sleep each night may not be reachable on a cellphone.

Park, Turley, Decker and others at the vigil said they were grateful for the state's plan, disclosed on Monday, to stand up a temporary site for families to sleep at the MBTA offices in downtown Boston.

But Decker continued that this was not enough.

"During COVID we had to come up with places for families to sleep. We came up with convention centers. It may not be ideal, but it's out there. We are thinking about where they can sleep right now, because sleeping outside is not ideal," she said.

The Cambridge Democrat noted how the state worked to set up field hospitals to meet demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Where's the thinking around this from the administration? I don't know because we're not hearing from them, because they don't want to agree to have a plan," she said. "There is nothing unreasonable about asking our administration to come together with the best and brightest minds."

Turley said that with families staying in "places not meant for human habitation," such as the airport, hospital emergency rooms and in cars, she fears that "this is going to be a public health crisis."

Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute are both calling for a quick end to negotiations, to pass the supplemental budget that includes money for shelters. But they want to "make sure that overflow spaces are part of that calculation for families put on a waiting list," Turley said.

Dave Foley, president of the local 509 SEIU who represents thousands of human services workers, said those workers have been put in a difficult situation.

"It's a job that people take because they want to help people. It's social work. And when their job -- when there's not adequate resources from the commonwealth, their job increasingly becomes turning people away," Foley said.

Written by Sam Drysdale/SHNS

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