Massachusetts Shelter System Now Hosting 6,300 Families

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By Chris Lisinski and Colin A. Young
State House News Service

Frustrations are swelling about who bears the brunt of the emergency shelter upheaval, National Guard personnel are preparing to deploy as “rapid response teams,” and the Healey administration is still waiting for the White House to respond to its call for action.

Weeks into the crisis, the Healey administration is preparing to deploy previously activated National Guard members to help address growing needs amid a record level of demand for emergency assistance shelter fueled by a large number of newly arriving migrants.

Driscoll said the state will focus Guard personnel in places that are currently “unstaffed” for shelter needs, describing them as well-equipped for the logistical challenge the emergency presents.

More than 6,300 families are now in the state’s shelter system, an increase of more than 60 percent since the 3,800 families involved when Governor Maura Healey and Driscoll took office in January, the lieutenant governor said.

Driscoll told the Local Government Advisory Commission that between 20 and 35 families seek shelter each day, occasionally swelling as high as 55 families, which “creates an immediate need to try and find spaces.”

“All of our typical emergency shelter sites were filled a month ago. That means we’re filling in trying to find locations,” Driscoll said. She later added that when the administration began using Joint Base Cape Cod to temporarily house families this summer, it “filled up within two days.”

Healey on August 31 activated up to 250 National Guard members to provide services at emergency shelter hotels, and Driscoll said Tuesday, September 12 they will be focused on areas that currently lack personnel.

“The plan that we have in place today with the deployment of the National Guard, which happened just last month, will put National Guard staff, soldiers, in locations as part of a response to our non-service providers, essentially creating rapid response teams in places that we don’t have the ground service contractors or case management services happening on a regular basis,” Driscoll said.

Housing Secretary Ed Augustus said Guard personnel will “help take some of the pressure off.”

“Having somebody who’s in that coordinator role at some of these unstaffed sites that can help facilitate the logistics, get kids registered for school, be a point of contact and this regional structure that’s going to kind of oversee multiple sites — I think that’s going to take down a lot of the kind of confusion and communication issues by having somebody right there on site,” Augustus told reporters after the Local Government Advisory Commission meeting.

Several local leaders told Driscoll on Tuesday about the burden their own communities are working to absorb.

Westborough has more than 80 families housed in hotels, according to Town Manager Kristi Williams, with more expected to arrive in October — the same month the state expects to open an emergency assistance shelter in the town.

Williams said her community is one of only about 80 in Massachusetts that is hosting families, a dynamic that is “really creating an unsustainable burden.”

“We’ve enrolled 40 students currently. We were just recently asked to enroll an additional 25 students that come from five families and speak five different languages, and the district doesn’t have the resources to support all of those different language needs,” Williams said. “… We are happy to welcome the students. The lieutenant governor and I have had one-on-one conversations about this. Westborough is very happy to do our part, but we can’t continue to expand and not see our neighbors supporting this crisis.”

When Healey declared an emergency around the shelter system situation last month, she also appealed to the federal government to revamp the work authorization process in ways that could move more people through the system and into a job.

She followed up last week with a letter to federal Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that took issue with a “confusing tangle of immigration laws” and an “inability for new arrivals to obtain work authorization from the federal government.” Healey said there is “cause for alarm” around the “challenge in helping new arrivals exit the shelter setting.”

The governor told State House News Service on Tuesday that her administration has “not yet” received any response from the Biden White House.

“The Biden administration needs to act. They need to act now. We need federal funds here to help address this. We need the Biden administration to provide expedited work authorizations. The new arrivals desperately want to work. Having talked to many of them, they are desperate to work and they can be put to work tomorrow if we have expedited work authorization,” Healey said during a flood damage tour in North Attleborough. “So that is something that I’ve asked for and pressed with the Biden administration. I will continue to do so with our Congressional delegation, and I know it’s something that governors around the country are seeking. Because what we’re seeing in Massachusetts is not something specific to Massachusetts, it’s something that we’re seeing around the country.”

While the crisis is not limited to the Bay State, it has inflicted enormous strain here. Healey estimated last month that Massachusetts — which under a 1983 state law entitles all homeless families to shelter — is spending more than $45 million per month on programs and shelters for families.

Lieutenant Governor Driscoll said some state agencies that in the past focused on shelter services have been “smashed together with refugee resettlement” given the high number of families arriving from other countries.

“This is a real challenge for us. This is not something that we anticipated was going to continue to increase at the level we’ve seen it,” Lieutenant Governor Driscoll said. “We have never had this many people in shelter in this commonwealth before. We have never had such a high-need population in shelter before. That is taxing all of us to try and identify solutions and to ensure that we have the resources when we need them, where we need them, and that is tricky when we already have a housing crunch under way, as we’re all aware of, in many of our communities. That is going to take an all-of-us strategy.”

State Representative William Driscoll (D-Milton), who previously worked in disaster response and today co-chairs the Emergency Preparedness and Management Committee of the state legislature, penned a letter on Monday, September 11 urging Healey to overhaul the administration’s “chaotic” response to the crisis and stand up a unified incident command structure.

“The current Humanitarian Arrivals crisis is not a challenge that can be reasonably absorbed or addressed by the routine day-to-day operations of state or local government agencies,” Representative Driscoll wrote. “The sheer volume and the needs of the arriving immigrants are complex and the official effort is barely keeping pace with the families arriving daily seeking shelter and other social services.”

Asked if he felt Representative Driscoll’s criticism is fair, Augustus replied, “I do.”

“I think we can always do better. Every single day we’re trying to do better,” Augustus told reporters. “We meet constantly, we’re bringing more resources and more state partners to the table to try to do better. There’s always room for improvement, and we’re committed to doing that.”

After a briefing with the lieutenant governor last week, state Representative Peter Durant (R-Spencer) said the lieutenant governor had “indicated that they would most likely be seeking a supplemental budget for the costs that were coming in, but there was no indication as to what that would be, when that supplemental budget would come.”

Asked Tuesday about the possibility of a supplemental budget to address the growing costs of the shelter system squeeze, Healey said, “We’re evaluating that. More on that to come.”

Her budget chief, Administration and Finance Secretary Matthew Gorzkowicz, told local officials at a separate event that a spending bill to close the books on fiscal year 2023 would emerge in the “next day or two.”


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