Gov. Maura Healey says she’s bracing to make tough decisions around access to the state’s shelter network, after a judge cleared the way for her administration to limit the system’s capacity to 7,500 families.

Superior Court Judge Debra Squires-Lee on Wednesday rejected a bid to halt the cap, which Healey administration officials say is necessary because of unprecedented demand for emergency shelter amid an influx of migrants and a housing affordability crisis that is also squeezing established Massachusetts residents.

It’s a major shift for the state, which under a 1983 law guarantees emergency housing to eligible families with children and pregnant women. While that law remains on the books, the state now plans to place families on a waiting list when no shelter space is available. Families will be prioritized based on health conditions and safety risks.

"These are hard calls," Healey said Thursday. "I just want to acknowledge that with the public. Nobody wants this situation. And all of us have been working together — inside and outside of government — to really deal with what is a heartbreaking situation. We cannot control geopolitical forces. You see migration happening around the world, right? And you see other countries dealing with this."

Guidance issued this week by state housing officials spells out how families will be triaged on the waitlist. The highest priority will be assigned to families that:

  • are at "imminent risk of harm" from domestic violence
  • the state Department of Children and Families determines are "at the highest risk of harm" due to their housing situation
  • include an infant aged 3 months or younger
  • include someone who is immunocompromised
  • include someone experiencing a high-risk pregnancy
  • or include who uses a tracheostomy tube to breathe

Healey said she’s also open to limiting the length of time families can stay in shelter.
"Whatever the moment requires," she said. "We've been talking as a team and we'll have more information about that. Again, I'm not looking — I don't want to see people out on the street. I understand people's vulnerability."

"These are hard calls. I just want to acknowledge that with the public."
Gov. Maura Healey

As of Thursday afternoon, 7,404 families — including 25 families enrolled in just the past 24 hours — were staying in emergency shelters across the state, including hotel and motel rooms That total includes around 10,000 children, Healey said.

Healey in September asked the Legislature for another $250 million for the shelter network, on top of the $325 million appropriated in this year's state budget, but that request has idled for weeks in the state House of Representatives.

A day before the court ruling came down, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and other groups rallied in front of the State House, calling on the administration to maintain shelter access and state lawmakers to quickly approve more funding to shore up the system.

Kelly Turley of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless said Thursday that her group continues to push for lawmakers to act before the cap is implemented. She told GBH News that advocates have been asking the administration what will happen to families put on a waitlist, "and heard they're still working to try to secure alternative congregate sites for families to stay in the meantime."

"But without that resource in place, we're very concerned that families will stay in unsafe places such as cars, campgrounds, transit stations, go back to abusive situations, end up in hospital emergency rooms [or] other places not meant for human habitation," Turley said.

She said her group is also concerned about a potential time limit for shelter stays and wants to “do all we can to make sure that families that are already in shelter aren't kicked out.”

State officials have been calling for the federal government to step in with more money and other aid. In a bid to free up space by helping people staying in shelters successfully move out, Healey has announced several steps to connect them with jobs.

During the week of Nov. 13, the Healey administration will partner with U.S. Homeland Security officials to host a clinic in Middlesex County that will help process work authorization paperwork for migrants staying in emergency shelter.

"The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting local jurisdictions hosting recently arrived migrants and we will continue working with our partners in Massachusetts in the coming weeks and months," White House spokesperson Angelo Fernández Hernández said in a statement.