A lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Greater Boston Legal Services is accusing a state agency of failing to live up to its legal obligations to provide adequate shelter to families facing homelessness, as the Baker administration ramps up its efforts to end the longstanding use of hotels and motels to house families. 

The complaint, filed last week in Suffolk Superior Court against the state's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), names a group of Massachusetts parents currently experiencing homelessness as plaintiffs.  The suit seeks class-action status to represent homeless families in Massachusetts generally.

Massachusetts law provides for a right to immediate shelter for families who meet certain criteria, a program known as "Emergency Assistance" and overseen by DHCD.  For decades, many families seeking emergency housing were placed in hotel rooms at the state's expense, often ending up living in those rooms for weeks, months, or even years. 

Governor Charlie Baker campaigned on ending the use of hotels to house homeless families, and over the last year that effort has ramped up considerably: just this year, the number of homeless families living in hotels has decreased from nearly 1,500 in January to about one hundred and fifty, according to the most recent data released by the state. 

The lawsuit filed last week argues that the push to end the use of hotels has come at the expense of families in crisis, claiming that the loss of hotels as an emergency option has left state officials turning families away, delaying placement, or placing families far from their communities and their children's schools. 

"The goal of reducing the use of motels is a good one, if folks are going to end up in a better place than a motel," says Ruth Bourquin, an attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services representing the plaintiffs. 

"But it's not acceptable that these families are being deprived of the right of having some safe place to stay and having some place that the legislature has said should be close to their communities and enable these children to continue in their schools." 

Among Bourquin's clients is a mother of three who, the suit claims, had been living with her children "in a place not meant for human habitation" yet had not been placed in emergency shelter for several days. Another plaintiff, a Boston mother of two who became homeless when an abusive husband abandoned the family, was improperly deemed "ineligible," according to the suit; they were later placed more than 30 miles from Boston, the suit claims.  

Paul McMorrow, Director of Policy and Communications for DHCD, told WGBH in an emailed statement that "Massachusetts is the only state in the nation that offers homeless children a right to shelter and DHCD has consistently upheld that right and acted in compliance with the law, while substantially reducing the state's reliance on motel shelters." 

"We look forward to vigorously defending the Department in this matter," McMorrow added.