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Mass. officials threaten to limit emergency shelter without more funding

Outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker's administration warned lawmakers this week that the state's family shelter system is running out of money.

Within the next 90 days, officials said, they anticipate the program will no longer be able to guarantee immediate shelter for eligible families, unless lawmakers allocate more funding.

The family shelter system provides emergency housing to eligible residents under an unusual state law that mandates shelter for pregnant individuals and families with children. The program has been serving thousands of families in recent months, but it has struggled to keep up with mounting need as a result of high housing costs, immigration and other factors.

In a letter sent to lawmakers on Wednesday, the Baker administration said it would continue to fund and operate the existing 3,500 shelter units, but it would be unable to continue efforts to expand the number of units.

Without additional funding, families eligible for the program would get a spot only if there is a suitable, existing unit available, the letter said.

“That's a huge departure from how the program operates now," said Kelly Turley associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. "Given that it's an emergency program, it is intended to be available for all eligible families.”

In the past, the state has found ways to provide shelter for every family that met the eligibility criteria. At times that has required adding units or placing families in hotel and motel rooms.

For the past several months, the state's letter said, there have been "few open shelter units" because of a "combination of decreased exits out of shelter and increased entries into shelter."

In mid-December, the state opened a temporary intake center in Devens that houses families in “barracks-style” accommodations while they wait for a shelter unit to open. Advocates criticized the facility, which lacks indoor shower facilities.

Cots at the Bob Eisengrein Community Center in Devens, which has been converted into a temporary family shelter. (Courtesy Adam Hoole)
Cots at the Bob Eisengrein Community Center in Devens, which has been converted into a temporary family shelter. (Courtesy Adam Hoole)

In their letter to lawmakers, housing officials warned  that “without adequate appropriations to expand capacity, it is probable that the [Emergency Assistance shelter] system will be unable to accommodate families who otherwise would be forced to remain in unsafe situations or sleep in cars, emergency rooms or other places not intended for human habitation.”

The letter appears to be an escalation of a weeks-long push for an injection of state dollars into the family shelter system. In mid-November, Gov. Baker asked lawmakers to put an additional $130 million toward housing and education for families and children experiencing homelessness.

The state’s family shelter system has been under particular strain lately. Emergency rooms in Massachusetts are seeing a record number of families whose primary concern is housing, and the state’s hotline to apply for shelter regularly has hold times that stretch for several hours or longer.

While it is common for the state’s shelter system to receive supplemental funding, the money allotted for the current fiscal year was the highest ever: more than $219 million.

Yet, advocates point out, the current number of families in the shelter system is far from its peak. At the end of November this year, there were 3,503 households in Emergency Assistance shelter. In 2015, the case load topped 4,500 families.

Liz Alfred, a staff attorney focused on family shelter at Greater Boston Legal Services, said she was surprised by the Baker administration’s letter warning of major changes to the shelter system unless additional funds are provided.

“This feels like a dramatic step,” Alfred said. “They really are, kind of, threatening the commonwealth's kids — the most vulnerable kids, the ones without a house who are extremely low income — to get the [Massachusetts] Legislature to do what they want.”

While Alfred said the funding is needed, she called the situation “foreseeable” given the years-long housing crisis.

The Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees the family shelter system, declined requests for an interview.

Since August, the Baker administration has endeavored to expand the number of shelter spots, including repurposing dorm space at Salem State University and securing new apartments across the state. Officials have also placed families in hotels and motels, although Baker had hoped to end that practice during his term.

Turley, of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said state officials have successfully used similar warnings in the past to push lawmakers to approve more money. However, she called the timing “jarring,” given that the current legislative session ends on Tuesday.

“In a couple of days the administration is going to be over. And so it's interesting that one of their last acts is to threaten to close the door on family shelter,” Turley said. “I'm hoping that it is because they want to motivate the Legislature to take action while they still can, while this particular supplemental budget request is alive.”

The funding request is still pending before the House Ways and Means Committee. But state Rep. Aaron Michelwitz, the committee's chair, told the State House News Service that lawmakers have several unanswered questions about the proposed spending.

"I would say 90 days seems like a very arbitrary number. You go back to the previous 90 days, and there was never a discussion about this before that point in time," said Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat.

He later added, "We want to make sure the funding is there when it's necessary, but for us to make sure that it's being spent appropriately and strategically, I think, is just as important as making sure it gets done before the end of the session."

Asked if the Baker administration failed to provide information the committee had requested, or if he is frustrated by the administration's approach, Michlewitz replied, "I think the fact that we haven't passed the bill yet speaks to that question."

Michlewitz said it is "tough to say" whether lawmakers will vote on the spending bill before the term ends, but said he does anticipate a "significant amount of funds" will be allocated in the near future.

Michlewitz also pointed out that Gov.-elect Maura Healey and her administration will take over the executive branch next week.

"We want to make sure that those folks have an opportunity to be part of the discussion as they'll certainly be part of the implementation," he said.

With reporting from Sam Drysdale and Chris Lisinski of State House News Service.

Related:

Gabrielle Emanuel Twitter Senior Health and Science Reporter
Gabrielle Emanuel is a senior health and science reporter for WBUR.

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