FOR 40 YEARS, Massachusetts has had a right-to-shelter law, which requires the state to provide shelter to families with children as well as pregnant women. The law is attracting a lot of attention right now because the number of families seeking shelter has more than tripled since the start of the year, the cost to the state is up to $45 million a month, and Gov. Maura Healey recently declared a state of emergency, urging the federal government to address immigration reform and to streamline the process for obtaining work permits.
Rep. Peter Durant, a Republican from Spencer who is running for a seat in the state Senate, and Evan Horowitz, the executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, outlined very different perspectives on right to shelter on The Codcast but agreed that the state needs to do a much better job gathering information on the impact of the law, its cost, and the role of migrants in the recent crisis.
“We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the people of Massachusetts, especially those looking for housing. We owe it to them to understand this problem,” Durant said. “And we need to understand it in minute detail because this is costing us – we hear $45 million a month but the costs are exponentially more than that. That may be what you’re paying for some hotel rooms, and I would still argue that that is a very low number. We are also feeding them three meals a day. We’re giving them EBT cards. They’re eligible for MassHealth. There’s an enormous amount of money going out the door and we have no idea how much it is.”
Durant hedged a bit, but ultimately called for the repeal of the right-to-shelter law. “At least it starts the conversation on what we’re spending and how we can fix it,” he said.
The representative said one fix could be to make the right to shelter available only to US citizens. He said that would address the issue of migrants coming into the state.
Does Durant think the right-to-shelter law is the legal equivalent of a neon sign beckoning immigrants to Massachusetts?
“That’s kind of an interesting way to put it — a neon sign — but I do think for lack of a better term it is,” he said. “We have seen this over the years with our generous welfare state here in Massachusetts. You are seeing this in some of the cities that would be considered sanctuary cities. They are magnets.”
Horowitz doesn’t see it the same way.
“If we have hung out a neon sign, that sign has been up for 40 years and it’s weird that we’re experiencing an acute problem right now,” he said. “There’s very little evidence that the promise of shelter for families is pulling people into the state.”
Horowitz said the law’s underlying goal of right to shelter is to prevent children from ending up on the street with no place to stay. “The idea is for children,” he said.
“If you’re going to make the claim that our right-to-shelter law is increasing immigration into our state, you would have to say relative to other states nearby,” Horowitz said. “But you know what? Lots of other states are seeing their shelter systems overwhelmed, are seeing rises in homelessness. That’s not unique to Massachusetts. We’re one of many states in the northeast and border states.”
Horowitz said immigrant asylum claims are up because more people are crossing into the US and many leaders in border states have started transporting the new arrivals to other states, including Massachusetts.
“That has changed the dynamic. But is right to shelter central to this? I don’t think so,” Horowitz said. He believes the housing crisis in Massachusetts is the primary driver of the rise in people seeking emergency shelter. He said more data on the problem are needed to verify the root causes, but he thinks the issue of homelessness in general is instructive.
“The evidence is really clear that the best predictor of homelessness rates is housing prices,” he said. “When housing prices are high, homelessness goes up.“
Durant agrees that the state is facing a housing shortage and more housing needs to be built. But he thinks the right-to-shelter law is exacerbating the problem and putting too great a burden on state taxpayers.
“I think those people that are coming across the border, coming across illegally, it’s a humanitarian crisis. It’s a crisis for our country,” he said. “I can’t help but think about human nature. When we provide free housing, free food, free medical care, who wouldn’t want to do that? It’s just logic that’s going to drive this population to find those things.”
He said Healey’s proposal to speed up the issuance of immigrant work permits could help address the problem, but worries that easing those rules could also take jobs away from US citizens. In the meantime, he said more people keep arriving in Massachusetts without the means to support themselves. “There seems to be no end in sight or a desire for an end in sight,” he said.