In a major shift, Massachusetts will begin turning eligible families away from its shelter system Friday, putting them on a waitlist instead of offering immediate housing. It's the first time such a step has been necessary since the state created its unique family shelter system 40 years ago.
Three weeks ago, Gov. Maura Healey announced that once the system hit 7,500 households there would be no room for more families. On Thursday, the state crossed that threshold. Leaders of the family shelter system said they would begin placing families on the waitlist Friday morning.
Advocates who work with homeless families worry the shelter waitlist forces families to stay in unsafe situations, including cars and abusive households. An attempt by some advocates to stop a waitlist was denied by a superior court judge.
Families fleeing domestic violence and those with health and safety risks will be prioritized on the waitlist, state officials previously said. However, they will not be guaranteed shelter; instead, they will receive a higher place on the waitlist.
State officials have said they hope the federal government will set up large congregate sites where waitlisted families can stay until a shelter spot opens up. However, that has not happened. A flyer put out by the agency overseeing the shelter system recommends waitlisted families can “return to the last safe place you stayed.”
“I'm a single dad of two boys, and my son has medical issues where it's almost impossible for me to go to work. And the last time I checked it's 28 degrees outside this morning. Where the hell am I going with my children?”Thomas Kearney
State officials have argued the waitlist is necessary because the shelter population has grown so quickly, breaking all previous records. The caseload has more than doubled since November last year.
Part of the growth is driven by an ongoing housing crisis in the commonwealth and part is because of a spike in newly arrived migrant families hoping to make Massachusetts their home. Taken together, these pressures have forced the system to a breaking point.
The state has rented more than 3,700 hotel and motel rooms across the state to supplement the 3,640 traditional shelter units that are full. Hotel and motel rooms can cost the state anywhere from $185-$330 per night, significantly more than a traditional shelter unit.
In August, Healey announced a state of emergency, activated hundreds of National Guard members and created an incident command system. Last month, she appointed Lieutenant General Leon Scott Rice to oversee the shelter system.
On Tuesday, as the system neared capacity, Rice announced Massachusetts would bump up the number of National Guard members assigned to assist the system, from 300 to 375.
He also told reporters the state would partner with United Way to administer up to $5 million in federal funds to organizations that will temporarily house families with no where to go once the system reached capacity.
The Healey administration is aiming to make more room in the system by helping current residents leave shelters, including by bolstering rental assistance programs and easing the way for newly arrived immigrants to get work permits.
Despite lawmakers giving the shelter program a record $325 million budget, the Healey administration said the funds will be depleted soon. The unstaffed hotel and motel shelter sites cost nearly $10,000 per family per month.
House lawmakers on Wednesday passed a supplemental budget measure that would add $250 million to the shelter system budget. However, legislators added some strings to the funding. The measure would require overflow sites for waitlisted families to be set up within 30 days. It would also require 60 days notice before asking any family to leave a shelter. The state Senate has yet to act on the measure.
A unique 1983 state law obligates the state to provide shelter to eligible families and pregnant women. However, the state has argued, the guarantee of shelter only applies to the extent that there are funds available.
New emergency regulations filed last week would allow the state to implement a waitlist. The new rules would also allow the state, with 30 days notice, to limit how long a family can stay in a shelter. The state has never before limited time in shelter, although it follows a similar move in New York City.
Shelter residents in Massachusetts reacted negatively to the idea of capping their time in shelter.
“I'm a single dad of two boys, and my son has medical issues where it's almost impossible for me to go to work,” said Thomas Kearney, who is staying at a shelter run by Catholic Charities. “The last time I checked it's 28 degrees outside this morning. Where the hell am I going with my children?”
He said he feels for the families who will be waitlisted.
This segment aired on November 10, 2023.