Homeless shelters in Massachusetts raise concerns as lawmakers consider historic limit to family stays

Homeless shelter providers in Massachusetts are raising concerns as lawmakers move to pass legislation that would limit stays to nine months for the first time in the 40-year history of the state's "right to shelter" law.

Massachusetts is the only state to provide families and pregnant women with a right to shelter, which has existed since 1983. But the system has come under historic strain due to an influx of migrant families and a growing number of Massachusetts families displaced under an increasingly unaffordable housing market, public officials and community leaders say. According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, a little over half of the current 7,500 families in the state’s emergency shelter system are those who recently came to the state as refugees or migrants.

“The shelter system is being overwhelmed, and we cannot, as a provider, we cannot handle it,” said Mark DeJoie, CEO of Centerboard, one of the largest emergency shelter providers in the state.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a new spending bill in March outlining a nearly billion-dollar plan to address the shelter crisis. Shortly after, the Senate passed a new version, requiring leaders from the chambers to enter negotiations to work out their differences. Both bills would impose a nine-month limit on emergency shelter stays, but the sticking points include what kind of extensions could be given to families and how the proposals would be funded.

Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, chair of the House Ways and Means committee, which is involved in the negotiations, said he believes a resolution can be reached on the proposals’ differences, adding that Massachusetts’ system would still be more generous than most states if it adopts a time limit of nine months for stay.

“It’s still one of the most generous, it is probably the most generous program in the country, in terms of what it provides," Michlewitz said. While some other major cities like Chicago and New York allow only short stays in their shelter systems, "we’re talking months here in Massachusetts,” he said.

Shelter directors hope that the legislation will include meaningful extensions past the initial nine months for struggling families, as the average length of stays for families in the system is nearly twice as long, about 16 months, according to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which oversees the state’s emergency shelter program.

“There are many families who are in shelters for a much longer period of time than 14 months and it has nothing to do with people’s willingness to leave shelter. It’s about the ability to leave,” said Shiela Moore, CEO of Hildebrand Family Self-Help Center, Inc., a shelter provider in the Boston area.

Hildebrand currently houses about 140 families in its Cambridge units, which include both apartment-style units and larger, congregant houses wherein families receive a room and share bathrooms, kitchens and living spaces with other families. Moore said more than 80 families have been there for nine months or longer.

In October, Gov. Maura Healey, a Democrat, capped the number of shelter units at 7,500, saying it was necessary because continuing to expand the shelter program would be “unsustainable.”

Maura Healey (Steven Senne / AP file)
Maura Healey (Steven Senne / AP file)

The cap comes after a jump in families qualifying for shelter. The Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities said that there were just about 3,000 families in the state system in March 2022. One year later, the system housed just under 4,000 families. By April of this year, the shelters supported about 7,500 families, with more than 3,500 of them staying in the system's traditional units and the rest in hotels. There are an additional 736 families on a waiting list for emergency shelter as of earlier this month.

Shelter leaders say the influx of migrant families has put stress on an already struggling system.

“There’s an immigration and a human crisis,” DeJoie, of Centerboard, said. “Our shelter system was never ever built to handle both of those. We do shelter, but the crisis that’s come to our front door, we weren’t equipped for that.”

DeJoie added that it’s imperative that the federal government steps in to help support the unique needs of migrant families, including obtaining the federal authorization necessary for migrants to apply for jobs in the U.S.

“We, Massachusetts and all the other places around the country, can’t do this without federal government support. It’s just — it’s impossible,” he said.

Elizabeth Sweet, the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition, said the federal government must improve its system for granting work permits to migrant families — a process that in some cases can take as long as a year or more, officials say. She added that many of the families in Massachusetts’ shelter system are there because they can’t start seeking work opportunities until they are approved to do so.

“The new immigrants don’t want to be staying in hotels and motels,” Sweet said. “They don’t want to be dependent on state-run shelters. They want to be working in jobs and be self-sufficient.”

“For many, many of these folks, they’re waiting some months for when they arrive to when they actually can even start looking for work,” she added.

When asked about the lack of action by lawmakers in Washington on immigration issues, U.S. Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass., emphasized the disfunction in Congress over a bipartisan border security bill that was abruptly scuttled by Senate Republicans.

The bill, which would impose stricter immigration and asylum laws, collapsed in February following criticism from key GOP lawmakers and Donald Trump.

“Personally, I would welcome the opportunity to vote on a sensible and bipartisan measure to tighten restrictions at the border,” Lynch said in the statement. “I believe the Senate has come up with a workable draft that could work with some tweaks, and I think we have the votes for that. Unfortunately, there are some who would rather campaign on the issue than fix it.”

While shelter leaders are concerned about the possibility of families being forced out before they have someplace new to go, they support the lawmakers’ efforts to find ways to address the situation as the system continues to buckle.

Danielle Ferrier, CEO of Heading Home, a major shelter provider headquartered in Boston whose 350 units are currently fully occupied, said there needs to be “some kind of guardrails” on the system to keep it from spiraling out of control.

“We have to come up with something that seems like it’s as reasonable as can be, as fiscally responsible and sustainable and as humane,” she added.

Ferrier said she would not be supportive of the original bill passed by the state’s House, which would allow families only one three-month extension in state shelters after the initial nine months have run out. After that, if they couldn’t find housing, families would essentially be put out onto the street, she said. Instead, Ferrier would back a time limit that would include multiple extensions for families who were trying to leave the system but were unable.

“What I believe is having a very clear nine months and then a waiver process where we can say, look, that family almost has an apartment. We’re not going to kick them out today. We’re going to make sure they get that apartment, right?” Ferrier said.

“You have to create the room for the system to flex to be humane and to work,” she added.

Moore echoed Ferrier’s sentiments, saying she understood something needed to be done to address the burdens on the system, but families should not be abandoned in the process.

“I’m very clear and I’m a realist, we all have budgets to manage,” Moore said. “But I’m hoping that the legislation will be nimble enough to make adjustments that are needed to keep people from falling through the cracks.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com