The Healey administration said Thursday it has reached 7,500 families in its emergency assistance system, the limit it set in October for guaranteed shelter placements.

Massachusetts is the only state in the country with a right-to-shelter law, a 1983 mandate that requires it to shelter unhoused families with children. While Gov. Maura Healey has said she isn't ending the law, she has said the state is strained on cash and space to uphold it.

"Today, the family shelter system has reached 7,500 families, and we are at the point where we do not have enough shelter units, service providers, or funding to continue to safely expand," said Emergency Assistance Director General Scott Rice. "Families will continue to be placed into shelter until the end of the day, and beginning tomorrow, families will be placed into shelter as units become available."

What happens next

Under new rules unveiled last week, the Healey administration will implement a waitlist and be triaging families into four tiers using a health questionnaire. First priority are women facing a high-risk pregnancy, families with a member who has a tracheotomy or an infant, and families at risk for domestic violence.

More than half of the families — 3,806 as of Thursday — are in local hotels and motels that have contracts with the state. Approximately half are migrant families according to the state. Under Healey’s direction, the National Guard is currently helping over 1,500 families in these locations, a move approved in August because several shelters didn't have nonprofit support staff to assist with migrants' immediate needs.

Envision Hotel
Several hundred migrants have stayed at Everett's enVision Hotel on the Parkway, which is contracted with the state.
Sarah Betancourt GBH News

The Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities will continue to accept and process emergency assistance applications, so eligible families can be put on the waitlist.

Waitlisted families will be alerted when space is available for them as the administration works to transition people who have been in the system to free up more spots.

It isn't immediately clear where families will temporarily go when the cap is reached. The Healey administration announced Tuesday it is partnering with United Way of Massachusetts Bay to identify providers who will in turn create short-term overnight sites for “families and pregnant individuals with no alternative shelter options,” according to Healey’s press office. But Bob Giannino, chief executive of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, said he doesn’t yet know how many families may be helped, or when those spaces will become available. Inquiries to Healey's office for details about the effort went unanswered on Wednesday.

The Legislature is also stepping in. On Tuesday, the House released a supplemental spending bill that included $250 million requested by Healey for the emergency shelter system.

But the money comes with strings attached. The bill sets aside $50 million for the state to create overflow shelters for the first 30 days after shelter capacity is reached — or requires the state to lift the 7,500-family cap. The Healey administration is now reviewing the bill.

House Speaker Ron Mariano told other elected officials on Wednesday that Hynes Convention Center is being discussed as a potential overflow site for families on the waitlist. "If it's Hynes, will that do it? Or do we need multiple locations across the state?" he said.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority said it is aware of Mariano's comments and has "not been engaged" regarding standing up "overflow emergency shelter site at any of our facilities."

At nonprofit Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan, thousands of mostly Haitian migrants have been connected to social services in the past year. Executive Director Dr. Geralde Gabeau believes that a cap will be a step backward.

"I do believe, by Friday, we're going to go back to square one," she told GBH News on Tuesday. "That is so unfortunate because remember, at the beginning of the crisis, people were sleeping at Boston Medical Center and the airport. Right now, the way things are — there is no clear education in terms of where people are going to wait."