The emergency shelter system in Massachusetts has been stretched to its breaking point, Gov. Maura Healey said on Monday, and the state will no longer guarantee shelter placements for new arrivals beginning next month, despite a law that says eligible families must be offered temporary housing.
The announcement comes after months of escalating pressure on state leaders as an unprecedented influx of migrants, mostly from Haiti, has collided with a long-running housing crisis. Statewide, nearly 7,000 families — twice as many as there were a year ago — are staying in emergency housing, a mix of traditional shelters, hotel rooms and co-opted college dorms. About half the families are new arrivals from other countries.
The number of families in shelters is expected to swell to 7,500 by the end of October, and cannot safely expand beyond that, Ms. Healey, a Democrat, said in a statement stacked with references to what she and other elected officials around the country have described as a lackluster federal response to migration. Starting in November, she said, no new shelter beds will be added in Massachusetts, and priority will be given to incoming families with health or safety risks. Others will be placed on waiting lists.
“This level of demand is not sustainable,” she said in a news conference at the Statehouse, in Boston.
Ms. Healey stressed that the state was not doing away with its 40-year-old right-to-shelter law, the only one of its kind in the nation. The law says that pregnant women and families with children who meet income guidelines and other criteria must be provided a place to stay.
An even broader New York City law, which also covers homeless people without children, has led to protest and controversy; more than 100,000 migrants have arrived there over the last year. Many have made the long and dangerous trip to the United States because of unstable economic and political conditions in their countries; after entering through the southern border, thousands have been sent to New York and other cities on buses by Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas Republican, while many others have made their way north on their own.
It was unclear on Monday how Massachusetts would set new limits on emergency shelter while still complying with its law. But criticism of the law, and calls to modify or dismantle it, have been growing since the summer among residents and lawmakers, some of whom are backing a legislative proposal to limit the right to shelter to U.S. citizens.
State Representative Steven Xiarhos, a Republican from Cape Cod who is one of the bill’s sponsors, said he hoped the governor’s acknowledgment that shelter capacity was limited would help lead to a serious re-examination of the right-to-shelter law.
“It’s nothing against the people who are coming,” he said. “It’s the amount of people, in a short amount of time. It’s very hard to keep up, and we can’t afford it.”
The 7,000 families have been placed in about 90 communities around the state, out of a total 351 cities and towns. Some local leaders have complained that urban areas, which have the highest concentration of hotels and shelters, are bearing an unfair share of the burden of providing social services and school placements.
The overall statewide shelter population is 23,000 people; about half are children.
Even under the right-to-shelter law, a significant number of families are turned away for not meeting eligibility guidelines, said Marion Hohn, a senior supervising attorney at Central West Justice Center, which provides legal aid to low-income people in central and western Massachusetts.
“We are very much concerned about any families being left out,” she said, “whether newly arrived or longer-term residents, with winter approaching in New England, and without many alternatives to the state-funded shelter system.”
The state has labored to keep pace with the new arrivals, contracting with service providers, opening two welcome centers to process incoming migrants and securing dorms and hotels to house families. Yet as the numbers have continued to rise, criticism and concern have, too, even in a liberal-leaning, wealthy state that prides itself on being welcoming.
Ms. Healey declared a state of emergency in August, activating the National Guard to help respond to the crisis. She said she had made repeated appeals to the Biden administration for help, including last week, when officials from the Department of Homeland Security visited Massachusetts at her request.
In addition to federal funds to help secure more housing, she said, the state needs federal help to speed up the processing of work permits for migrants so that families can move more swiftly from reliance on state housing to independence.
Also on Monday, Ms. Healey named a new emergency assistance director to oversee the state shelter system. To speed people’s movement out of shelters, the state will add new job training programs for shelter residents, so they can be ready to work as soon as their permits come through. The state will also partner with employers to identify job vacancies and match them with permitted workers.
“People want to work, there is work available — let’s make that happen,” Ms. Healey said.
She pledged that the state would remain true to itself in the “next phase” of its efforts. “Massachusetts will continue to rise to this challenge — that is who we are,” she said. “But this is a federal problem that demands a federal solution.”