When It Was Enacted 40 Years Ago, Massachusetts Right-To-Shelter Law Primarily Benefited Those With Special Needs

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2024/05/10/when-it-was-enacted-40-years-ago-massachusetts-right-to-shelter-law-primarily-benefited-those-with-special-needs/

Massachusetts has had a right-to-shelter law since 1983 — but its beneficiaries in the early years looked much different from how they look now.

The statute guarantees emergency assistance shelter at state government expense for families and pregnant women.

Though about half of those staying in the state’s emergency shelter system now are migrants (some of whom are illegal immigrants), the shelter system initially primarily benefited another demographic:  people with special needs.

Back in 1987, before the state had a 7,500-family cap on its emergency shelter system, it had about 900 homeless families in its state emergency shelter system, as State House News Service reported at the time. Their average stay in the shelter system was 100 days — just over three months. 

At that time, the wire service reported that “the lion’s share of these families and 80 percent of the children are in the special needs category.”

Two-thirds of those in the shelter system were from either Boston or Cape Cod, the report said.

Additionally, the report noted that, in 1987, sheltering a family cost $1,800 per month. That would be $4,826.96 in today’s dollars, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. However, the state now spends about $10,000 per month per family in the shelter system, as NewBostonPost has previously reported.

The right-to-shelter law drew on a 1982 campaign promise from Michael Dukakis, who was elected governor that year, to reduce homelessness in Massachusetts.

“Tomorrow morning in my office I will convene an emergency meeting of the new Cabinet, the Senate President and Speaker of the House, nonprofit organizations, civic and religious leaders, and representatives of the Coalition for the Homeless,” Dukakis said during his January 1983 inaugural address. “We will begin immediately to put together a statewide effort which will provide the necessities of life to those in desperate need. We will establish a toll-free hot line for instant referral, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If needed, we will draw on surplus state hospitals, unused public schools, and as a last resort, National Guard armories to shelter the homeless and to distribute surplus food.”

Currently, demand for spots in the state’s emergency shelter system outpaces the supply since Governor Maura Healey set a 7,500-family cap on it last fall. Most of the migrant families, who come to the state to use its shelter system, are from Haiti. In addition to the 7,500-family cap, the other change the shelter system has undergone in recent times is a nine-month maximum stay limit for families in the shelter. That change became law last month. However, families can apply for two 90-day extensions, making the longest possible uninterrupted stay 15 months.



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