Lawmakers Let Healey Take Shelter Crisis To New Phase

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — With Gov. Maura Healey's emergency shelter capacity limit about to take effect, House and Senate Democrats are not signaling any broader plans to step in and demand a different approach to helping families in need.

A day after a Superior Court judge upheld the Healey administration's plan to stop expanding shelter availability amid surging demand, finger-pointing and disagreement about who holds responsibility continued to swirl.

Lawyers for Civil Rights, the group that challenged Healey's decision to move to a shelter waitlist instead of guaranteeing placement to all applicants, said "the ball is squarely in the Legislature's court to respond to this humanitarian crisis," but the plaintiffs who lost a round in court this week are also continuing to evaluate additional legal options.

The House and Senate on Thursday adjourned for the weekend without giving any indication they will use their power to push Healey in another direction away from limiting shelter capacity. Healey is trying to mitigate shelter availability, but has warned that once the number of families in shelter reaches 7,500, the state won't be able to guarantee placement to additional applicants a decision with implications for Massachusetts families and newly arriving migrants.

House Speaker Ron Mariano didn't signal any clear plans for the House to inject more money to sustain shelter system operations.

Healey in September requested $250 million more in a fiscal year 2023 closeout budget bill, but it became clear through this week's court proceedings that the state has enough shelter funds to finance operations into January

"The House continues to work towards providing emergency assistance funding in the coming weeks," Mariano said in a statement. "However, it is our understanding that the Administration's decision to institute a cap and waitlist has never been tied to the passage of a supplemental budget."

Senate President Karen Spilka issued another call for help from the federal government.

"As the crisis with emergency shelter continues, I am once again joining those asking for help from the federal government to provide much-needed funding, expedited work authorizations, and the resources to establish a congregate site to provide shelter. We are facing a difficult and unprecedented time in our Commonwealth, and I continue to believe that, while we must help ensure that no family or child faces sleeping on the street, we need help to do so," Spilka said in a statement on Wednesday. "I am grateful for the Healey administration's leadership, and I look forward to working with our partners in the Administration and across government to find a way forward to protect the most vulnerable among us."

State law requires Massachusetts to provide shelter to certain eligible families and pregnant women. In recent months, the strain of doing so has grown rapidly.

Administration officials expect to begin putting shelter-seekers onto a waitlist in the coming days, once the system reaches the declared capacity of about 7,500 families. As of Thursday, the system had 7,404 families enrolled, according to state data.

Healey administration officials said in court this week that they project the number of families in shelters could grow to 13,471 by June, assuming capacity continued to increase to meet demand. If the state kept the caseload around 7,500 families for the rest of the fiscal year, it would still need $210 million more than the $325 million in the annual state budget line item to fulfill shelter costs, officials said.

When Healey took office in January, there were about 3,800 families in the emergency assistance shelter system. By early August, when Healey issued an emergency declaration, the system housed about 5,500 families. On Oct. 16, when the governor said the state would soon no longer be able to guarantee placement, the caseload totaled nearly 7,000.

"It's because of those numbers, exponential, in a system that was not constructed to withstand and handle those kinds of numbers," Healey said after an unrelated event Thursday. "We'll continue to provide information about what the numbers are as we try to manage things, but we have been clear about what we think the limits are with respect to actual infrastructure and physical facility space, the availability of service providers, and the dollars that it takes to fund these efforts."

Months into the crisis, few lawmakers have publicly criticized the administration over the response to the ongoing emergency. Some Republicans have raised concerns about the resources the state is deploying to support migrant families, who represent about half of the current shelter caseload. The other half are Massachusetts residents facing homelessness or housing insecurity, Healey has said.

Neither co-chair of the Legislature's Children, Families and Person with Disabilities, Rep. Jay Livingstone of Boston and Sen. Robyn Kennedy of Worcester, responded to News Service interview requests Thursday. The panel is tasked with "all matters concerning child welfare, juvenile justice, public welfare, and children and adults with physical, developmental or intellectual disabilities."

Rep. Marjorie Decker, who on Tuesday joined anti-homelessness advocates at a rally calling on the administration to stop its planned changes to the shelter system, told the News Service she found the court decision "disappointing."

"It doesn't solve the problem. We can go ahead and say we're not eliminating the [right-to-shelter] law, but we are eliminating the law," Decker, who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, said. "At the end of the day, we've got children who are going to have nowhere to sleep."

Decker said she is concerned that families will decide not to join a waitlist if space is not immediately available and that the state might struggle to get in touch with those still waiting for a spot.

"What I want to know more about, quite honestly, from the governor's office, I don't need the semantics about whether or not you're limiting the law or not. What I need to know is: really, what's the plan?" Decker said. "And when we understand the plan, then we understand what the full cost is. I believe that's what leadership's been waiting for and asking for."

While she signaled ongoing agitation with Healey's team -- at one point, Decker said "talking to us about a waitlist is just not a plan" -- the Cambridge Democrat said she has no such frustration that the House has not advanced Healey's plan to steer $250 million more toward the shelter system.

"I'm actually feeling really confident that I know the leadership in the House is paying attention to this. I've had conversations. They care deeply," Decker said. "And so no, I'm not frustrated. I know that we're paying attention."

The administration's approach has raised some eyebrows among longtime Beacon Hill observers and insiders.

Joan Venocchi, a Boston Globe columnist who was once the paper's State House bureau chief, wrote Wednesday that the 1983 right-to-shelter law is "under attack."

"A spokesperson for Healey said the governor is 'not altering the right-to-shelter law and will continue to place eligible families into shelter as units become available.' But practically speaking, Healey has proclaimed there are limits to the state's largesse, while trying to be humane about it by setting up a triage system to prioritize those who are most in need," Venocchi wrote. "It would be better and more honest if Healey just said she wanted to change the law and forced state lawmakers to consider that. Instead, she insists she supports the law but just can't come up with the money or space for all the people who need shelter."

Healey told reporters on Thursday that she "continue[s] to call on the Biden administration for help and support, both through actual dollars and other ways to support infrastructure here in the state."

Once the number of families seeking emergency assistance shelter surpasses the limit of 7,500, which is expected to happen in the coming days, the state will begin shifting applicants to a waitlist.

A triage system will assess where families land on the waitlist, with four levels of priority laid out in guidance from the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities. Top priority will go to families with a child 3 months old or younger, an immunocompromised member, someone with a high-risk pregnancy or someone with a tracheostomy tube, as well as those who would experience highest risk of harm if they become homeless or stay in their existing housing and those facing "imminent risk of harm due to domestic violence."

Once a spot becomes available, officials plan to contact a families by email, phone call and text using information they provided. They will have until 12 p.m. the following business day to accept an offer for shelter placement.

"These are hard calls. I just want to acknowledge that with the public, nobody wants for this situation, and I think all of us have been working together inside and outside the government to really deal with what is a heartbreaking situation," Healey said Thursday. "We cannot control geopolitical forces. You see migration happening around the world, and you see other countries dealing with this. We can work to control what's happening within Massachusetts to the best of our ability."

Healey said Massachusetts is "doing something that I don't believe other states have yet to do, and that is working intentionally and actively on exiting people from shelter." During the week of Nov. 13, the administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will host a "clinic" where migrant families will be able to apply for work authorization, a step that Healey has repeatedly said is key to moving new arrivals from shelters to more permanent housing.

She also suggested Thursday the administration might move to cap the duration of stay in shelter.

"We're open to time limits. Whatever the moment requires," Healey said. "I think that we've been talking as a team and we'll have more information about that."

Written by Sam Drysdale, Alison Kuznitz/SHNS

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