As of Monday, the shelter system, officially called Emergency Assistance, was serving 5,550 families, or more than 20,000 people.
“It's more families than our state has ever served, exponentially more,” Healey told reporters and advocates at the State House. She noted that the number of families in the state shelter system has increased roughly 80% since this time last year. "It's unsustainable," Healey said.
The governor emphasized that the numbers have been driven by an increase in new immigrants arriving in Massachusetts. Many are fleeing violence, political unrest and economic instability in places like Haiti and Venezuela.
Often, they are unable to work legally. Healey added that many are eager to work but have waited months, and sometimes years, for work authorization.
In a letter to the federal secretary of Homeland Security, Healey urgently requested more federal assistance and said she was prepared to use all of the powers available to her as governor to deal with the situation.
"I am delivering an urgent and formal appeal to the federal government for intervention and action," Healey said. "We need action to remove barriers and expedite federal work authorizations. We need action and intervention for funding to help us in this time."
Tuesday's emergency declaration is different from the one declared by former Gov. Charlie Baker to address COVID-19. It does not expand the governor's powers, but Healey's office says it lays the groundwork for her to invoke additional powers if needed going forward.
Advocates say shelters are too stretched
The new arrivals are coming at a time when high living costs and a lack of affordable housing already strain many family budgets. Median rents in the state near $3,200 a month, according to Zillow.
Healey and advocates say a lack of affordable housing has contributed to an increase in families entering the shelter system.
The announcement of an emergency declaration has been rumored for several days. Advocates who pushed for the move say existing shelters are stretched too thin, and the situation is becoming unsafe. They hope the declaration will unlock more funding and allow them to open new shelters.
"We are 110% behind the governor's decision today," said Danielle Ferrier, CEO of Heading Home, a Boston-area homeless services provider. "We have hit both capacity on finding new units and on being able to support those new units with staff. And so that is part of the emergency for us as providers on the ground."
In her announcement, Healey reaffirmed her support for Massachusetts' unique right-to-shelter law, enacted in 1983, saying she hopes the state of emergency will push the federal government to act and increase the state's ability to help families.
"With the current surge, this is not a crisis that our family shelter system was designed to handle," said Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll. "We really need to bring more people into this work to make it a true team effort."
The Healey administration has tried a variety of new approaches, including opening a limited number of pre-shelter units on Joint Base Cape Cod, creating two new "welcome centers" for families and asking residents to serve as host families. The state also has begun providing legal aid for newly arriving families.
Despite these efforts, a growing number of families are staying in hotels or motels because there is no other place available for them. On Monday, 1,887 families were in hotels and motels provided by the state. Advocates briefed by state officials, said more than 400 of those families lack access to regular shelter services, such as case managers.
'People can't get out of shelter'
Part of the challenge is many families find it difficult to exit shelters, in part due to the lack of affordable housing.
“It definitely feels like a crisis,” said Andrea Park, director of community driven advocacy and a housing attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “The fact that so many more people need shelters is directly related to the fact that people can't get out of shelter, because there's nowhere to go that's affordable.” The average length of stay in the state's family shelter system is more than a year.
In May, New York declared a state of emergency to deal with rising numbers of new arrivals, and New York City’s mayor has proposed suspending the city’s right to shelter. Leaders in several cities, including New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, have made emergency declarations as they face rising numbers of new immigrants.
Last month, Cardinal Seán O'Malley visited a new 45-family shelter quickly set up by Catholic Charities Boston before the state of emergency was declared. One family at the shelter said they fled Haiti in 2019, then traveled through Chile and Mexico with three children before coming to the U.S. and, eventually, Massachusetts.
“People come here with a great desire to work, to get a better life for their children. They're people willing to make sacrifices,” O'Malley said. “They have strong community and family values that will enrich us as a people. And so although we're giving, we're going to receive a lot.”