While its right-to-shelter law will remain in place, Massachusetts may not be able to guarantee shelter for immigrant families as soon as the end of this month when the state’s shelter system reaches capacity, Gov. Maura Healey said Monday.

There are close to 7,000 families enrolled in the state’s emergency shelter system, Healey said Monday — more than double the number of individuals enrolled at this time last year, and up significantly from the 5,600 families being housed when Healey declared a state of emergency in August.

“We do not have enough space, service providers or funds to safely expand beyond 7,500 families. We expect to hit that limit at the end of the month,” Healey said during a State House press conference. “From that point on, we’ll no longer be able to guarantee shelter placement for new families entering.”

At over 23,000 people, the rapidly growing number of people in emergency shelter housing has now exceeded the population of 262 of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts, based on 2020 census data.

Starting Nov. 1, the state will not add any new shelter units, the administration announced. At that time, families seeking shelter will be assessed, and those with higher needs will be prioritized for placement. Those who do not immediately get placed in housing will be added to a waiting list.

The governor said her administration is not making any move to end Massachusetts’ “right-to-shelter” law, but will not be able to fulfill it when the system reaches its max capacity.

The 1983 law makes Massachusetts the only state in the country that has a legal obligation to shelter unhoused families.

“[Healey] said that they would not be changing or removing that right, but some of the remarks about triage and a waitlist don’t seem very consistent with that,” Andrea Park of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute said after the governor’s press conference. “We’re definitely concerned about what it’s going to mean in practice.”

Park said incoming immigrant families already need to be in a difficult position and meet many requirements to be legally allowed into the country and protected under the right-to-shelter law.

“A waiting list seems very impractical and very difficult. These are people who — you only get in if you really have no place to go, and so being able to keep track of people and manage something like that, that’s just unworkable. I do think that there are a lot of concerns about whether that would, in fact, meet a statutory obligation if they were to turn people away,” Park said.

Though Healey’s announcement on Monday seemed to reflect a steepening decline of the state’s shelter system, she also revealed a shifting strategy in her administration’s approach in the crisis.

Since the summer, the governor has been calling on the federal government to intervene to speed work authorizations and provide financial assistance to create more shelter space.

But just days after Massachusetts got a visit from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security team, who came to the Bay State to get a closer look at the ongoing emergency shelter crisis, Healey said on Monday “we are not waiting any longer.”

“As we have said many times, we need the federal government to more quickly process work authorizations for new arrivals. They want to work. They want to support their families and we have thousands of open jobs going unfilled here in our state. So we are not waiting any longer. We are connecting as many shelter residents as we can to work opportunities,” Healey said.

The MassHire State Workforce Board will begin working with shelters and employers to match new immigrants who are eligible to work with jobs. Healey said MassHire South Shore has begun working with Dunkin Donuts to connect shelter residents to 30 open jobs.

The first phase of this new program is focused on 14 shelter sites, which house about 1,500 families, according to the governor’s office.

The state is also developing a new job training initiative with the nonprofit arm of the Commonwealth Corporation Foundation.

The administration will also focus on expanding the HomeBASE rehousing program, which helps eligible homeless families pay their first and last month’s rent and security deposits, as well as other moving expenses that can be barriers to housing.

Healey said her administration will also support private sponsorships for families who’ve been in shelter the longest. Families who have been in shelters for longer than 15 months will be prioritized for finding a way to exit the temporary housing system.

The new program also focuses on legal services for new immigrants, and on Tuesday will launch a pro bono program with immigration organizations to provide services for over 100 families at large shelters. Later in October, the administration will begin contracting with five legal services agencies to provide services in 25 shelter sites across the state.

Asked by a reporter Monday how many individuals are being housed and what the cost was to the state, Healey said of the more than 23,000 individuals in the state’s shelter system, about half are new immigrants. She added that about half are children.

The governor did not respond to the question about the cost to the state.

House Speaker Ron Mariano said over the weekend that Healey’s original request for $250 million to help manage the crisis might not be enough to last even until the end of October.

In mid-September, the governor offered a spending bill (H 4090) that included $250 million to put toward the emergency shelter crisis. That proposal remains before a House committee, and Mariano said Sunday on WCVB’s “On the Record” that he still has “tons of questions” about “how are we going to pay for this?”

In August, Healey said the state was spending over $45 million each month on programs for these families and to create new shelter space. Since that time, an additional 1,400 families have moved into the state’s emergency housing system.

The governor also announced Monday that she appointed a new emergency assistance director to lead operations “in this new phase” of the ongoing emergency shelter crisis. Lt. General Scott Rice, former director of the Air National Guard and adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard, will take the job to “work across our incident command structure and in a close collaboration with local officials and stakeholders.”

Rice led emergency response and post-disaster recovery efforts for Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Irene, the Boston Marathon bombing and ice storms in his role as the adjunct general for the state’s National Guard, according to Healey’s office.

“It is important to me that our state succeeds in meeting this humanitarian challenge. I’ll bring all my values and all I’ve learned to bear on this crisis,” Rice said. “We will be responsive. We will be transparent and trustworthy in everything we do.”

General Frank Grass, former chief of the National Guard Bureau and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff while Rice led the Massachusetts’ guard, said he worked with Rice during the Boston Marathon bombings.

Grass praised Rice, saying he embodies the Air Force’s core values of “integrity, service before self, and excellence.”

“A hard thing for military folks sometimes in the homeland, is that you’re always in support of someone else — a civilian agency. And Scott has mastered that. He’ll work with them and figure out who is in charge, and he’ll tell you, ‘I’m not in charge. I’m here to support you. Let’s put this together in a collaborative effort,'” Grass said in an interview with the News Service.

Rep. William Driscoll Jr., House chair of the Joint Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Management, wrote a letter to the Healey administration in September calling the state’s response effort “chaotic.”

In that letter, Driscoll called for “a unified incident command structure supported and facilitated day-to-day by experienced practitioners.”

Driscoll said he was looking forward to learning more about the plan for the “pivot” the Healey administration appears to be taking, which he had called for.

“I agree with the Governor’s words and efforts aimed at seeking meaningful and substantial federal funding and other supports,” he said in a statement. “The trend in Humanitarian Arrivals to Massachusetts and the strain it is putting on systems in the Commonwealth is undeniable and unrelenting. The Federal government must get together and do more to support Massachusetts and other states in this crisis. I look forward to hearing from the new Emergency Assistance Director and learning about their perspective on the situation and the evolving plan.”

(Copyright (c) 2023 State House News Service.

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