Judge rejects effort to halt waitlist for families seeking emergency shelter

John Adams Courthouse. (Joe Difazio/WBUR)
John Adams Courthouse. (Joe Difazio/WBUR)

A Superior Court judge on Wednesday denied advocates' request to temporarily stop the state from implementing a waitlist in its family shelter program. The decision means the state can begin placing families on a waitlist instead of providing immediate housing, something it has never done in the 40-year history of the program.

The request came as part of a class action lawsuit brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of several families on the brink of homelessness.

The families' lawyers argued the state failed to provide a legally-required 90 days notice to lawmakers before making a significant change in the state-run program.

However, in her decision, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Debra Squires-Lee said the families did not have standing to make the request. She also found the state complied with the law by requesting additional funding for the program more than a month ago, and by enacting emergency regulations Tuesday.

The judge said she does not have the authority to stop the state from using its authority to manage the program within the limits of its budget.

A spokesperson from the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which oversees the shelter program, called the ruling "appropriate."

“The state does not have enough space, service providers or funding to safely expand shelter capacity,” the spokesperson said.

In a statement after the ruling, Lawyers for Civil Rights said it will evaluate its options for future litigation.

"We are disappointed," said Oren Sellstrom, the organization's litigation director. But he added that the ruling "shines a light once again on the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding, and on the need for the legislature to act quickly to preserve emergency shelter, particularly now that winter is approaching."

Carol Rose, the executive director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, echoed the call for lawmakers to take action.

"The Commonwealth must not slam the door to emergency shelter for children and their families who have no other safe place to go — leaving families with nowhere to sleep other than the streets, cars, and other places that are dangerous for children," Rose wrote in an email to WBUR.

Gov. Maura Healey announced in mid-October that the family shelter system was nearing capacity and would not be able to support more than 7,500 households. The state expects to reach that threshold within days. As of Wednesday, there were 7,388 families in the system.

When the system reaches the cap, Healey's administration plans to place families that qualify for shelter on a waitlist. The list will prioritize families fleeing domestic violence and families with medical needs. However, there is no short term plan to provide emergency shelter for families while they are on the waitlist.

Adam Hoole, a senior paralegal at Greater Boston Legal Services, said the move to a waitlist, and a related move to limit how long families can stay in the shelter system, feel like adding "cruelty on cruelty," and making life "as hard as possible for families that are in the most dire situations."


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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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