A Superior Court judge Wednesday denied an emergency request from the Lawyers for Civil Rights to stop the state from limiting family shelter placements. Gov. Maura Healey's administration now has the authorization to cap the number of placements to 7,500 families — a change to the state's right-to-shelter law, which guarantees housing for homeless families and pregnant women.

Attorneys at Lawyers for Civil Rights had argued that capping shelter placements was not only out of step with that law but also against requirements enshrined in the state’s funding of the shelter system.

On Wednesday, Judge Debra Squires-Lee agreed that the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities failed to give the Legislature the required 90 days advance notice of the proposed changes, but determined that the plaintiffs lacked “standing” to challenge this failure in court.

"We are disappointed in today's ruling," lead attorney Oren Sellstrom said.

"We were hopeful that the judge would allow that claim to go forward and rule in our favor, that the homeless families had the right to challenge that failure to provide 90 days notice to the Legislature. The judge disagreed," said Sellstrom.

He said the ball is now squarely in the Legislature's court to act on the appropriation request, which he noted is particularly urgent "as the winter is approaching."

The Healey administration had argued that the modification to the law was necessitated by the unprecedented number of migrants arriving in Massachusetts. The cap is scheduled to go into effect this week. Healey had  warned in mid-October that the state could no longer guarantee shelter for newly arriving families.

State officials estimate that there are currently 7,319 families in emergency shelter and say they cannot accommodate many more.

Assistant Attorney General Kim Parr argued in court that there was not enough money appropriated by the Legislature to accommodate the number of migrant and homeless families that need housing. Parr said that Massachusetts will hit its capacity of 7,500 families this week and that, with money running out, spending has to be capped.

Under Healey’s announced plan, families would be triaged to prioritize them by need and placed on a waitlist once the state is sheltering 7,500 families. Elizabeth Alfred, a housing attorney for the Greater Boston Legal Services, said that is unacceptable.

“So it’s not like: ‘We're going to waitlist you for shelter or put you in a hotel,’” she said. “It means we have no shelter for you at all. We have no help for you at all. There is no place for you to go from the state. There's nothing we can do for you.”

Alfred said that Greater Boston Legal Services and others will fight to house those who need it.

Sellstrom said though Wednesday's decision is disappointing, there is an upside.

“The silver lining is that it shines a light once again on the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding and on the need for the legislature to act quickly to preserve emergency shelter,” Sellstrom said. “We are evaluating next steps in the litigation.”

Updated: November 01, 2023
This story was updated Wednesday with the judge's ruling and plaintiffs' reaction.