BOSTON (SHNS) – A rapidly rising uptick of immigrants has strained state resources and pushed the Massachusetts shelter system to the point that it is “reaching capacity,” Gov. Maura Healey said Tuesday morning as she declared a state of emergency around the “crisis” situation.
Close to 5,600 families are currently housed in the state’s emergency shelter system, Healey said during a press conference at the State House on Tuesday morning. This number is 80 percent higher than one year ago, she said, and can grow by between 10 and 30 families each day.
More than 80 cities and towns across the state are hosting these families, including more than 1,800 families who are residing in hotels and motels, according to the governor’s office.
“These numbers are being driven by a surge of new arrivals in our country who’ve been through some of the hardest journeys imaginable. They are the face of the international migrant crisis. They’re here because where they came from is too dangerous to stay,” Healey said. “They’re here because Massachusetts has and will always be a beacon of hope, compassion, humanity and opportunity.”
Massachusetts is the only state in the country with a “right to shelter” law, which guarantees homeless families access to emergency shelter.
Along with her emergency declaration, the governor on Tuesday delivered an “urgent and formal appeal” to the federal government to “remove barriers and expedite federal work authorizations,” and for “action and intervention for funding.”
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Healey wrote that Massachusetts is adding new shelter units every week, and is currently spending more than $45 million each month on programs for these families and to create new shelter space, but that it’s not enough to “meet the rapidly rising demand for shelter.”
The line item for Emergency Assistance Family Shelters in the fiscal year 2024 budget currently awaiting Healey’s signature — or amendments — appropriates $325 million for the state’s shelter system.
This would fund the shelters at about $27 million per month from just that line item, $18 million less than what Healey said the state is currently spending. However, the $325 million total represents a 48 percent increase over last year’s shelter funding of $219.4 million.
Healey said the most important thing the federal government could do to help resolve the “crisis” is expediting work authorizations for immigrants.
“People are anxious to work,” she said. “We know there are employers around the state across industries who are looking for that workforce. It’s also a talented workforce, not only is it a resilient workforce coming with skills, training, licensing certification from other countries.”
It is not the governor’s first plea to the Biden administration to accelerate the authorization process that can take months, or longer, which allows people to access job openings.
Healey made a similar call to action last week, saying, “We had offers when we put families at Joint Base Cape Cod, we had employers begging to send up a bus to get people, to bring them back to the Cape to work, to put them to work.”
“By investing in [immigrants], we are investing in the future of our community. They are teachers, they are drivers, they work in nursing, they work in the hospital. They are all over the place making us better, so I call them my heroes,” said Geralde Gabeau, founder and executive director of Boston-based nonprofit Immigrant Family Services Institute.
The Healey administration has opened two immigrant resource centers, called “family welcome centers,” in Quincy and in Allston to keep up with the demand among new arrivals and people experiencing homelessness.
As of last week, just over 40 hotels and motels in Massachusetts were being used as emergency shelters, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities said.
“It’s reached a point where the capacity just isn’t sustainable,” Healey said later Tuesday on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”
And with the state’s shelter system pushed to its limits, the administration also used Tuesday’s press conference to urge landlords, churches, synagogues, universities, businesses and private residents to open their homes and businesses to help house immigrants.
“This is not a crisis that our family shelter system was designed to handle. For months now, state government and our providers have been doing the work of stretching the system as far as it can safely go. But we really need to bring more people into this work to make it a true team effort,” Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll said. “If you have an extra room or suite in your home, please consider hosting a family. Safe housing and shelter is our most pressing need.”
As the number of undocumented immigrants relocating into northeast states has spiked in recent months, Healey isn’t the only government official who has looked to take emergency actions. New York state declared a state of emergency in the spring, as well as the cities of Chicago, El Paso and Washington, D.C.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams asked a judge in May to relieve the city from its own right-to-shelter obligation.
Representative and candidate for state Senate Peter Durant called Tuesday for Healey to file legislation to repeal Massachusetts’ right-to-shelter law.
“Our homeless shelters are maxed out. Hotels across the state have been converted to shelters. And the problem is growing on a daily basis. Worse yet, all of this assistance is being taken away from our legal residents and it is a potential safety risk for the children. It is time to repeal the Right to Settle law, so Massachusetts will stop being a magnet state. Today, I am asking Governor Healey to file emergency legislation to repeal it,” Durant wrote in a release.
Asked by a reporter if she had considered even a temporary lift to the right-to-shelter law, Healey quickly responded, “No. I was never going to end, nor do I have the authority to end, right-to-shelter in the state.”
The governor said she could not answer another reporter’s question about when the emergency declaration would end — if, like the COVID-19 emergency, it would stretch for years, or if it would be more similar to the weeks to months under a state of emergency following flooding or a storm.
“I can’t make predictions about that, we’ll do whatever is necessary,” Healey said.
The declaration made Tuesday is not like the state of emergency that Gov. Charlie Baker put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, which invoked the Civil Defense Act and public health emergency statutes to provide the governor with expanded powers, according to Healey’s office.
The emergency declaration announced Tuesday is intended to signal that Healey is ready and prepared to use all the powers typically granted to her, such as activating the National Guard, and to send a message to the federal government that the state needs help, her office said.
“The Governor is invoking her authority as Governor to address an emerging and humanitarian crisis. This is a declaration that the Governor will use all the powers granted to her to issue recommendations, directions, and orders to address the shelter crisis. It is both an alert and a call to action,” Healey spokeswoman Karissa Hand said. “This is a first step — the immediate goal is that the state will get urgently needed assistance from the federal government. But this declaration widens the path for the Governor to take additional action as needed.”
The governor also did not file a formal executive order, according to her office, because a formal order is not required for the action.
Taking a page out of the playbook they used to respond to recent flooding in western Massachusetts, Driscoll also announced Tuesday that the administration launched a “Massachusetts Migrant Families Relief Fund.”
The migrant relief fund, similar to the “Agricultural Disaster Relief Fund” the administration announced last month, is a coordinated effort with United Way of Mass Bay to raise private donations.
The latest fund, which The Boston Foundation also helped launch, will be used to “rapidly deploy emergency financial assistance” through a network of nonprofits and shelters for food, clothing, diapers, hygiene items and transportation, as well as to “fund livelihood opportunities and assistance such as health screenings, translation services, legal assistance, work authorizations, ESOL classes and other socio-economic and cultural integration supports,” the Healey administration said. The fund will also directly support the organizations providing these services.
Eastern Bank Foundation pledged the first major donation of $100,000, and Blue Cross Blue Shield donated $50,000.