State officials take emergency steps to limit the Mass. family shelter system

In emergency regulations filed Tuesday, state officials said they can make changes in the state-funded family shelter system — without approval from lawmakers.

Officials said the emergency regulations would allow them to create a waitlist for families seeking emergency housing. They would also allow the state to limit how long families can stay in the shelter system if officials provide 30 days notice of the change.

The filing comes as the number of families in the system reached 7,389 on Tuesday, more than double what it was a year ago. The numbers have spiked in the last few months.

“The emergency assistance shelter system has experienced unprecedented and unsustainable rates of growth in demand in recent months,” wrote Edward Augustus, secretary of Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which oversees the shelter program, in a letter to lawmakers accompanying the emergency regulations.

The letter said that the “system capacity is unable to meet current and projected demand for shelter.”

Advocates decried the moves, saying the regulations would fundamentally change the state's right-to-shelter law.

“This is completely unprecedented,” said Liz Alfred, an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it’s going to be a nightmare for families.”

The state filed the new regulations as people were gathering at Suffolk Superior Court for an emergency hearing in a class action lawsuit aimed at stopping the state from using a waitlist instead of offering immediate shelter to all eligible families.

Brought by advocates on behalf of three families on the verge of homelessness, the lawsuit argues the Healey Administration failed to provide adequate notice of its plans to lawmakers.

Jacob Love, a lawyer for the families, told the judge that the state would leave families “out in the cold” with a waitlist.

He said state law specifically requires lawmakers to receive 90 days notice before major changes to the program.

“Given the emergency nature of the shelter program, this is a lot like the fire department creating a waitlist for families with ongoing house fires,” Love said in court. “Delay in services amounts to the denial of services.”

But Kimberly Parr, an assistant attorney general, countered that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing because the requirement is to provide notice to lawmakers, not to families.

She said the Legislature is well aware of the situation in the family shelter system, and the administration is not bound by the requirement to provide 90 days notice if funds for the program are running out.

“If you look at the public record you will see, the governor issued a state of emergency because of this crisis in August 2023," Parr told the judge. "The governor set up an incident command to address this, the Legislature is presumably aware of all that."

Parr also pointed to the governor's supplemental budget, filed in September, "specifically requesting $250 million in additional funds to support family shelter related services.”

Gov. Maura Healey announced in mid-October that the family shelter system was nearing capacity and running out of money. Healey said the system would not be able to support more than 7,500 households.

Instead, her administration planned to implement a waitlist that would prioritize families fleeing domestic violence and families with medical needs. Under the state’s plan, families on the waitlist would receive shelter only when units are vacated by families leaving the system.

Many homeless advocates urged the state not to implement a waitlist, saying it would force families in need of housing to stay in unsafe situations such as hospital emergency rooms, unheated basements and abusive homes.

In addition to the class action lawsuit brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights, opponents of a shelter waitlist rallied outside the State House on Tuesday. More than 100 organizations have signed a letter calling for lawmakers to provide more funding for the family shelter system and pause the waitlist through at least January.

The judge requested supplemental information Tuesday before issuing a ruling. The judge said a decision would come by Wednesday.

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



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