A SUPERIOR COURT judge is expected to rule by the end of the day Wednesday on whether to block Gov. Maura Healey from putting a cap on shelter placements and waitlist families looking for emergency shelter.
Judge Debra Squires-Lee on Tuesday heard arguments at an emergency hearing in Suffolk Superior Court. Lawyers for Civil Rights, an advocacy group that filed a class action suit to halt the cap, argues that the proposed limit on shelter placements is “artificial” and the Healey administration’s moves must go through a public process, which includes notifying the Legislature.
A 1983 state law requires Massachusetts to provide shelter to homeless families and pregnant women. Healey on October 16 said that the state will hit a limit on taking in families and adding new shelter units starting on November 1, and families seeking shelter will be assessed in terms of needs, such as health and safety, and prioritized. Other families will face placement on a waitlist.
“The Commonwealth does not have enough space, service providers, or funds to safely expand shelter capacity any longer,” Ed Augustus, Healey’s housing chief, wrote in an official declaration accompanying emergency regulations. “For the reasons described above, I determine that the maximum capacity of the Emergency Assistance program is approximately 7,500 families.”
Kim Parr, the assistant attorney general who argued before the judge for the administration, said that maximum capacity could be reached later this week. She added that the matter is between the Healey administration and the Legislature.
Increasing numbers of migrant families, coupled with limited availability of affordable housing that is causing fewer families to leave shelters, has created a cash squeeze in the emergency shelter budget. The state budget for fiscal 2024, which started in July, included enough money for 4,100 families, Augustus wrote. The $250 million requested in a supplemental budget that Healey filed in September to close out fiscal year 2023 also won’t be enough, he said.
After the initial projection of 4,100 families, the number of families seeking shelter space has “exploded,” Parr told the judge. “And it keeps going up, and up, and up. It’s unrelenting.”
Shelter units are spread across 90 cities and towns. About 250 members of the Massachusetts National Guard have been deployed to shelter hotels that would “otherwise be unstaffed, lacking coordination of services for food, basic needs, medical, and transportation,” Augustus added.
At the current rate of expansion, there could be more than 13,000 families in the emergency assistance shelter system by the end of next July, according to his calculations.
Jacob Love, appearing on behalf of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said his organization was making a procedural argument in noting the lack of a public process surrounding the announcement of a shelter cap. He said the housing secretariat needed to formally give the Legislature 90 days notice of the change, which has not been done. Love said Lawyers for Civil Rights had not had a chance to review the new, last-minute state regulations in depth before the hearing.
But if the courts don’t intervene, homeless families with children will be “left out in the cold,” Love said, in pressing for a temporary restraining order on the Healey administration’s moves.
He likened the Healey administration’s move to alter state and cap shelter space to a fire department creating a waitlist for families dealing with house fires.
Parr, the assistant attorney general, claimed the Legislature has been notified of the shelter crisis and the capacity limit. The situation is “no surprise” to the Legislature or members of the public, since Healey issued a “state of emergency” on the shelter crisis in August, and recently set up a multi-agency incident command center led by Lt. Gen. Leon Scott Rice, who retired from the Air National Guard in 2020, Parr said. Healey’s $250 million request to the Legislature is evidence that the Legislature is aware of the problem, Parr added, and has had time to act.
But Love said Wednesday was the first time state lawmakers were getting specifics, through the declaration, and he reiterated that the housing secretariat must provide 90 days notice to the Legislature if the money is going to run out.