BOSTON (SHNS) – Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll will privately brief state representatives Thursday on the state’s emergency assistance shelter system and the strain it is under as a result of this year’s surge in immigrant family arrivals, a topic that has already generated dozens of questions from lawmakers.
Driscoll and unidentified administration members plan to meet with reps from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the House Members’ Lounge, with a virtual option also available. The briefing is open only to House members “given the interest in this topic and limited time,” the governor’s office said in an invite sent to representatives Monday night. House Speaker Ronald Mariano’s office said the briefing “has been scheduled in response to requests from House Leadership.”
Gov. Maura Healey has declared a state of emergency around the shelter system due to “rapidly rising numbers of migrant families arriving in Massachusetts in need of shelter and services and a severe lack of shelter availability in the state.” She also made a plea for federal action on work authorizations and said the declaration served as a notice to the feds that “the state’s shelter system is rapidly expanding capacity in an unsustainable manner, and that further assistance is urgently needed.”
Last week, the governor activated up to 250 National Guard members to provide basic services at emergency shelter hotels.
There were nearly 5,600 families (or more than 20,000 individuals) in the state shelter system as of early August, including children and pregnant women. That’s 80 percent higher than a year ago, and Healey said the number can grow by between 10 and 30 families each day.
Thursday’s briefing “will focus on recent updates and topics that affect EA across the state and districts,” the administration said in its email to reps. District- or hotel-specific questions will be punted to “off-line conversations.”
On Tuesday afternoon, after the administration emailed representatives with details of Thursday’s scheduled briefing, a group of House Republicans (and one GOP senator) sent a letter to the governor and Housing and Livable Communities Secretary Ed Augustus with a litany of questions about the shelter system, the impacts of settling migrant families in Massachusetts, and more. Spearheaded by Rep. Michael Soter of Bellingham, the letter expresses “deep concern” about the emergency declaration and says that representatives don’t have the information they need to answer constituent questions about the situation.
“We are compassionate people but we have Massachusetts residents who are seniors, veterans, single moms, single dads and families on waiting list for housing service for longer than a year. We have constituents we have been trying to be placed since last summer. We have people concerned how they will put food on the table next week with the rising inflation. We have people, our citizens, who can’t get health coverage and prescription drugs covered. We have too many other issues we need to address before we start bringing in these undocumented immigrants. We have citizens of our Commonwealth hurting!” the letter said. “We believe that these are reasonable questions to ask when the people of Massachusetts have no choice in what action the government is taking. We ask for greater transparency around this entire issue.”
The letter includes at least 23 specific questions, including “What the plan is for the thousands of Massachusetts citizens who have been waiting for housing in Massachusetts for months, even years?”, “Will there be a requirement that they must begin the process to become a United States citizen?”, “Is the state covering the full cost? What is the financial impact to the state? How many taxpayer dollars are going to this?”, and “Does the Administration have a plan to address the influx of students that school districts will face?”
The letter was signed by Minority Leader Brad Jones of North Reading, Sen. Ryan Fattman of Sutton, and Reps. Soter, Donald Berthiaume of Spencer, Marcus Vaughn of Wrentham, Marc Lombardo of Billerica, Joseph McKenna of Webster, Peter Durant of Spencer, Paul Frost of Auburn, Steven Xiarhos of Barnstable, Susan Williams Gifford of Wareham, David Muradian of Grafton, Steven Howitt of Seekonk, and David DeCoste of Norwell.
The Republicans wrote that they understand that Massachusetts is the only state in the country with a “right to shelter” law, which guarantees homeless families access to emergency shelter. But, they argued, the law was meant “to protect Massachusetts citizens who were facing challenges finding a place to shelter.”
“This law was not intended to include everyone from around the world that comes to Massachusetts. It is not economically feasible to continue down this path,” the Republicans wrote. “We should be asking the Federal government to help us house our citizens! The immigration crisis is a problem that needs to be addressed by those elected in Washington, D.C. Our state should not be having to prioritize undocumented immigrants over our own citizens.”
Durant, who is running for a vacant seat in the Massachusetts Senate, released a statement through his campaign Wednesday calling on Healey to support legislation he filed to restrict the state’s right to shelter law only to legal U.S. citizens.
“Gov. Healey has called out the National Guard and made an emergency declaration for our state, but she is ignoring the cause of the problem which is two-fold: The open border policy of our country, and the Commonwealth’s Right to Settle law,” Durant said. He added, “Once illegal immigrants know that our state will no longer be taking over hotels to house and supplying them with EBT cards, they will no longer make Massachusetts their destination of choice. Our state needs to be taking care of our most vulnerable population, not people who illegally crossed our country’s borders.”
During a WCVB-TV interview that aired Sunday, Senate President Karen Spilka was asked about the state’s 1983 right-to-shelter law, which has come into play as state and local officials and nonprofit groups look to come up with housing solutions for families arriving from other countries.
“It was put in place about 40 years ago,” Spilka said. “It hasn’t been a problem before. I don’t think that’s the biggest problem now. We do have folks coming over. Some of the folks that are falling under the right to shelter and the need for shelter are our residents as well.”
The Ashland Democrat said more federal solutions are needed to help address the state of emergency in Massachusetts around migrant arrivals.
“We need help,” she said, requesting funding, federal immigration reform, and the delivery of work permits so that migrants can take jobs.
Lawmakers “could look at” changing the right-to-shelter law, Spilka said when pressed by “On The Record” co-host Sharman Sacchetti, before revisiting the story of her grandfather, Joseph Goldstein, who came to America in 1906, fleeing a small village in Russia.
“There are children and families,” Spilka said. “Again, we are all immigrants. Unless your family is of Native-American descent, we’re all immigrants. My grandfather fled Europe with just the clothes on his back. He woke up one morning — his best friend was literally hanging from his town square — and his father said to him, ‘We need to get you out, you’re next.’ So people are leaving a lot of the countries to save their lives and their children’s lives.”
That Driscoll will be the one conducting the administration’s briefing for representatives shows that the lieutenant governor has assumed some level of leadership around the issue of migrant arrivals and the state shelter system. She has been a main point of contact for municipal officials dealing with downstream effects of the situation, but told the News Service last month that she was not necessarily the administration’s point person for the issue.
“We have a secretary of housing and livable communities and the folks on the ground are really the key responsibility for that. But as a former local leader, I’m naturally the person that gets the phone pickup and phone calls from individuals who either have concerns or opportunities,” Driscoll said during an Aug. 3 visit to Attleboro. “We see our emergency shelter program as something that’s part of our values. We are a right-to-shelter state, meaning if families come here and are homeless, we want to try and make sure they’re not living out on the streets. That has had some bumps with the surge that we’re seeing, so talking to communities about how we can work together to address it has certainly been part of the work.”
(Michael P. Norton contributed to this report.)