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BOSTON (AP) — The number of homeless families seeking emergency shelter in Massachusetts is nearing a 7,500-family threshold, past which Democratic Gov. Maura Healey says the state can no longer accommodate them and will instead place families on a waitlist, prioritizing those with the highest needs.
Healey has said she doesn’t want to see families out on the street but that the state has essentially reached its shelter capacity. The spike in demand is being driven in part by a surge of migrant families entering the state.
Massachusetts joins other locales struggling under an influx of migrant families seeking shelter. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has announced he is limiting shelter stays for migrant families with children to 60 days. In Chicago, officials have looked to relocate migrants seeking asylum from police stations and the city’s airports to winterized camps with massive tents.
On Wednesday, the number of families in emergency shelter in Massachusetts stood at 7,488, according to the state.
At least one immigrant aid organization — La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts — said later Wednesday that it appeared the cap had taken effect as they tried to place a family in a shelter.
“We were informed we hit the cap and due to the cap, families are being put on a waitlist,” said Cherlin Dubon, triage case specialist for the group.
Critics argue Healey’s decision to cap shelter placements violates the state’s “right-to-shelter” law. Under the four-decade-old law, Massachusetts is legally required to provide emergency shelter to eligible families.
Under Healey’s plan, women, young children and those with acute medical needs and health issues will be given priority. The state is also considering limiting how long a family can stay in a shelter, Healey said.
With winter not far off, officials are scrambling to prevent families from ending up on street. A flyer the state has prepared to hand to families denied shelter suggests a handful of options, the first being to “return to the last safe place you stayed.”
On Tuesday, Healey announced a $5 million grant program to help local organizations create overnight shelter for families and pregnant individuals with no other options.
Massachusetts lawmakers are also weighing a bill to set aside $50 million to set up one or more locations where homeless families could find temporary refuge while they wait for a shelter space.
Democratic House Speaker Ronald Mariano said that could be a single large site like the Hynes Convention Center in Boston or smaller sites spread around the state.
“Where are these people going to go?” Mariano said Wednesday. “Where do they spend the night when they come in here on a Friday night at 7 o’clock? Are they just going to go directly to the (Boston) Common and bed down for the night?”
Healey has said she’s pressing federal officials to speed up the process by which migrants can get work authorizations and ultimately exit the shelter system to free up more space.
Denying families emergency shelter could force some into unsafe living conditions, said Kelly Turley, director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
She and other homeless advocates have pressed the Legislature to approve money for a large living site similar to that described by Mariano.
“We’re very concerned that after 40 years of having the right to shelter, that the administration is moving forward with their plan without making sure congregate shelter is available,” Turley said.
Advocates welcoming new migrants to the state say they’re concerned about how to help those with no friends or family and nowhere to stay.
“When people come, especially those with babies, do we send them to the street?” said Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Boston. “We are not sending them to the street, so we need a place to send them.”
Families are currently housed in hundreds of locations in 90 cities and towns in a range of facilities, from traditional shelters to temporary sites like college dorms.
The state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities last week issued guidance on the coming changes to the shelter system.
Top priority will be given to families at imminent risk of domestic violence or who have an infant up to 3 months old, have family members with an immunocompromised condition, are experiencing a high-risk pregnancy or who include a family member with a medical device, specifically a tracheostomy tube. Additional priority levels will take into account the age and medical needs of family members.
Under the guidance, families will be offered available shelter units based on their position on the waitlist. The list will be refreshed once a day and those eligible for shelter will be contacted by email, phone call and text. Families on the waitlist for six months or longer will have to undergo another assessment.
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