MASSACHUSETTS RESIDENTS are strongly in favor of the state’s unique right-to-shelter law, but there is significantly less support for the law being used to provide emergency housing for migrants, according to a new CommonWealth Beacon poll.

The law, which requires the state to provide shelter to homeless families and pregnant women, is embroiled in controversy on Beacon Hill as migrant families have flocked to the state, overwhelming the emergency shelter system. Gov. Maura Healey has pleaded for help from the Biden administration, and set a cap on the number of families as money and shelter space has run out.

In the CommonWealth Beacon poll (toplines, crosstabs), 76 percent of residents said they support the right-to-shelter law, with 45 percent saying they strongly support it. Only 19 percent said they opposed the law.

But support for the application of the law shifted when residents were asked about the thousands of migrants who have arrived in Massachusetts in recent months, and are currently in the state’s emergency shelter system. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said they support shelter for migrants, while 40 percent were opposed. Those who feel strongly on the issue were split evenly, with 23 percent strongly supportive and 23 percent strongly opposed.

Statewide survey right to shelter MassINC Polling Group housing migrants

Massachusetts residents are fairly evenly divided on whether the state should welcome people facing persecution and violence elsewhere. Forty-one percent said yes, 36 percent said no, and 23 percent said they don’t know or refused to answer. 

There is a clear partisan gap in support for the right-to-shelter law. Eighty-nine percent of Democrats say they support the shelter law, compared with just 55 percent of Republicans. When it comes to the migrant crisis in particular, there is an even bigger partisan divide, with 80 percent of Democrats supporting housing migrants in the emergency shelter system compared to just 22 percent of Republicans.

“People like the concept of right-to-shelter and majorities across party lines support the policy,” said Steve Koczela, president of MassINC Polling Group. “But when applied to this specific situation, they are more skeptical and cross-party support really takes a hit.”

The popularity of the law overall could carry political implications for officials who seek to change or modify it, whether through new laws or regulations, as Healey has proposed. 

The migrant crisis has surfaced in a November 7 special election to fill a vacant central Massachusetts state Senate seat, which features state Rep. Jonathan Zlotnik, a Gardner Democrat, facing off against state Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican. Durant has called for the revocation of the shelter law, or for it to be limited to only US citizens.

The online survey, conducted by the MassINC Polling Group from October 16 to 20, asked 1,002 Massachusetts residents about the shelter law and other topics. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

Mass. residents split on state reaction to migrant crisis, October 2023, MassINC Polling Group

Age is another indicator of support for the right-to-shelter law: Eighty-eight percent of 18 to 29-year-olds support the law, as do 83 percent of 30 to 44-year-olds. But just 69 percent of 45 to 59-year-olds back it, a number that ticks down to 65 percent among people over age 60.

The poll also takes a look at support and opposition along racial lines. Asked specifically about housing migrants in the emergency shelter system, 71 percent of non-Whites support such a policy, compared to 49 percent of Whites.

There is more support for just the right-to-shelter law itself, with 71 percent of Whites saying they support it, compared to 87 percent of non-Whites.

During the same week the poll was conducted, Healey announced that the shelter system would hit capacity by the end of October, with the administration placing the number at 7,500 families, or 24,000 individuals. The figure includes newly arrived migrant families as well as longtime Massachusetts residents.

“We do not have the shelter space, the physical space,” Healey told WBUR earlier this week. “We do not have the number of shelter providers and service providers to be able to withstand this capacity. And we don’t have the funding. I’ve been begging the Biden administration for resources.”

Half of the new people flowing into the emergency shelter system are children, and many of them are school-age, she added.

The administration issued emergency regulations this week for capping the system, and prioritizing and wait-listing families who arrive after the cap has been hit.

Housing advocates took the Healey administration to court, calling the process “rushed” and arguing the cap is an “artificial” one. The administration and advocates faced off on Tuesday, with advocates arguing for a pause on implementation of any policies, but Suffolk Superior Judge Debra Squires-Lee ruled on Wednesday that the Healey administration could move ahead with its cap-and-waitlist plan.