The state’s emergency shelter system will reach its capacity limit by the end of the month and Massachusetts will no longer be able to guarantee shelter for newly arriving migrants, Gov. Maura Healey said Monday.
“I want to assure you that we will continue to engage, assess and serve every family who appeals for help as best we can,” Healey said. “Families with high needs, including health and safety risks, will be prioritized for shelter placement. But especially with winter approaching, we need everyone to understand that we are entering a new phase of this challenge.”
As of Nov. 1, the state will no longer be able to add new shelter units, and families will be placed on a waitlist if they are not “immediately connected with shelter,” Healey’s office said. Healey said Massachusetts does not have "enough space, service providers or funds" to safely expand shelters beyond their current capacity.
She said the state will also ramp up its efforts to help families move out of the shelter system and into stable housing.
The governor reiterated her call for more federal support as she announced steps her administration is taking to respond, including new job training efforts and the hiring of a former Massachusetts National Guard leader as emergency assistance director.
Healey’s office said the state's shelter network cannot accommodate more than 7,500 families or 24,000 individuals. Including both migrants who’ve recently come to Massachusetts and families with longstanding ties to the state, emergency shelters across 90 communities are currently housing nearly 7,000 families, or 23,000 people — roughly equivalent to the population of Wilmington or Wareham.
More than half of the people in the state's emergency shelters are children, Healey said. She said the immigrants housed in the shelter system are here lawfully and were “allowed in with the knowledge and consent of our federal government.”
On Aug. 8, when Healey used a letter to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to declare a state of emergency around the migrant and shelter crisis, nearly 5,600 families were living in state-funded shelters, hotels, dormitories and other emergency facilities.
Healey has been urging the federal government to speed up the work authorization process for new arrivals. Last week, Department of Homeland Security officials visited shelters and a family welcome center in Massachusetts, and Healey's team characterized their meetings with DHS as "productive."
"I think they know and understand quite clearly what it is that we are seeking and those discussions are continuing," Healey said Monday. "I'm hopeful that they will result in action soon for our state, but in the meantime, we can't wait."
In a pilot that will start in Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll’s hometown of Salem, Healey's administration is partnering with the quasi-public Commonwealth Corporation Foundation on a new job training program that will connect businesses to people in shelter who are awaiting work authorization.
The MassHire Regional Workforce Boards and career centers will also connect with shelters to assess the skills of residents who are legally able to work. So far, Healey's office said, MassHire South Shore is working with Dunkin Donuts to fill 30 job openings and MassHire North Central connected someone with a retail job in Leominster.
Healey tapped Lt. Gen. Leon Scott Rice, former adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard and director of the U.S. Air National Guard, as emergency assistance director. She said Rice "has the strategic and the operational expertise that we need to lead the emergency shelter system through this new reality."
Rice, according to the governor's office, will lead an incident command team, provide daily updates to Healey and Driscoll, and coordinate with local, state and federal officials.
"We will be responsive. We will be transparent and trustworthy in everything we do," Rice said.
Massachusetts is the only state in the country with a right-to-shelter law, which requires the state to provide housing for homeless families with children and pregnant women. Healey said the law remains in place, but she does not “expect to be able to house people the way we've been able to house people in the existing infrastructure.”
Asked if she planned to limit the amount of time families can stay in shelter, Healey said, “Right now, we're just dealing with folks who are in shelter, working to get them exited, particularly some who've been in shelter for over a year, and what we are doing is saying that our ability to expand, to find other locations, has really dwindled.”
Along with action on work authorization, Healey said Massachusetts needs more federal funding, as state and local budgets “can only stretch so far from this point on.”
State lawmakers have not acted on a spending bill Healey filed a month ago that would appropriate another $250 million to address the shelter crisis.
In a WCVB interview Sunday, state House Speaker Ron Mariano said that $250 million will help, but "may not even get us to the end of this month." He pointed to dysfunction in Congress, where Republicans have struggled to elect someone to the vacant speakership, as an additional obstacle.
"I know the cavalry isn't on the other side of the hill, because maybe I'll go down and be the speaker in Washington, too," Mariano said. "But right now there's a rudderless ship that controls the spigot for the help that we need. We need congregate housing facilities. We need money."