Defending The Right To Shelter Law

MARCH 23, 2023

Over the past year, a surge in immigration has captured headlines and led to unprecedented strain on our state's family shelter system. Spending on the program has nearly quadrupled — on track to be just shy of $2 billion for FY24 and FY25 combined.

What gets highlighted less often is the fact that more than half of the 7,500 unhoused families in the family shelter program are longtime Massachusetts residents. So, we're not just facing a "migrant crisis" — we are also facing an ongoing "domestic" housing emergency.

As your State Representative, I've been deeply involved in efforts to address this ongoing emergency. This afternoon I want to offer updates on two aspects of this work: the latest emergency shelter-funding bill, and the progress we've made at the overflow shelter in East Cambridge.

House votes $245 million for emergency shelter funding; I voted in opposition to imposing a new time-limit on family shelter.

Earlier this month, House Leaders advanced a supplemental budget (H.4460) to cover some $245 million in costs for the EA shelter program for Q4 of FY24 (i.e. through June 30, 2024).

While this funding-level represents an extraordinary commitment to addressing family homelessness — the legislation also imposed a new time limit on the right to shelter law.

The House bill would limit a family’s time in shelter to 9 months and allow an extra 3 months if a family member has a job or is in job training or is pregnant.

I agree "something needs to be done" about the escalating costs of the shelter program — and yet, I voted "No" on the House bill because I don't think it makes sense to point the finger at our most vulnerable families.

Rather, I think our starting point should be addressing the inefficiencies in the way the program is currently being run, while at the same time, making bigger investments in the primary solution to homelessness, i.e. housing. 

At present, the average length of stay in family shelter is about 14 months. By imposing a 9 to 12 month time-limit, without doing more to address the underlying reasons why families remain in the system, I worry we will spend $120,000 to shelter a family only to put them back on the street without a path to housing and with little to show for that expense. It might be cheaper to just give that family the money for a downpayment on a house!

I've met with some of these unhoused families — and I can say, no one wants to be in a shelter for a day longer than they have to. The biggest barrier to exiting shelter isn't a willingness to work or a desire to pull yourself up by your bootstraps — it's access to housing. And just because you find a job doesn’t mean you can afford housing in Massachusetts. Putting an arbitrary time limit on shelter eligibility won’t change that.

As it stands, we are spending way too much on the shelter program for the results we are getting. In our House Democratic Caucus earlier this month, I highlighted these concerns and suggested that our focus has to be on pushing the Administration to seek greater efficiencies on the spending side — while at the same time, doing even more to address the historic lack of affordable housing.

To be fair, even with the pending changes. our Right To Shelter law is still going to be the strongest in the nation, by far — and, we also took action in a floor amendment to require competitive bidding on food services, which should do more to help control costs. Also worth noting the influx of new arrivals has been rapid — so it's understandable the initial response hasn't been perfectly efficient. Now is the time for us to find ways to maintain the Right To Shelter in a more cost-efficient fashion while at the same time doing more to build and deploy low-threshold housing, permanent supportive housing, and other housing first models. An arbitrary time-limit, on the other hand, won't actually solve any of the underlying problems.

Finally, we must also recognize the "Right To Shelter" in Massachusetts has always been significantly limited, unfortunately.

Right now, more than half of the homeless families that apply for EA shelter are told they are "not poor enough" to qualify for shelter. A single mom with a small retirement who was pushed into homelessness would probably be told to spend down her modest savings before being offered shelter, for example. And, there is no general right to shelter for unhoused individuals, unfortunately as well.

For more on the shelter-funding bill and the proposed time-limits, check out my recent spot on GBH's "Talking Politics"

This past week, the Senate approved its own version of the bill. It included the option of multiple 30-day extensions for some vulnerable families, a welcome improvement. Both the House and Senate bills will now be reconciled and a final version will likely come back to each branch for an up or down vote in April.

For my part, I remain committed to defending our Right To Shelter law and working with colleagues to address problems with the current system.

Expanded daytime access and options for families at the East Cambridge safety-net shelter

Earlier this month, Governor Healey welcomed me, Senator Sal DiDominico, Cambridge City Manager Yi-An Huang, and Cambridge's Housing Liaison, Maura Pensak, to her State House office for a meeting with Lieutenant Governor Driscoll, General Rice, and other members of the Administration who are running the state's network of "overflow" Safety Net Family Shelters.

I had requested a meeting with the Administration following several reports of problems with the operation of the Safety Net Family Shelter in the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds Building in East Cambridge. The main problem being a lack of weekday-daytime access to the shelter, particularly for families with children in our local schools.

In case you missed it, here's my segment on GBH's "Morning Edition" where I outlined the issues at the East Cambridge shelter and how we've been advocating for improvements:

In response to our advocacy, I am very pleased to report the state has implemented a comprehensive set of improvements. To wit:

  • Greater operational flexibility, including weekday access for families with children in our local schools.
  • AMI, the shelter's staffing contractor, is now scheduling a staff member to be on-site weekdays specifically to accommodate families that need access to the shelter during weekday-daytime hours.
  • If a child staying at the Safety Net Shelter does not feel well and needs to leave early from school due to their sickness, they now have the option of returning to the shelter to rest and recover. If symptoms require isolation, they would be transported and accommodated at the Family Center in Quincy. Coordination is being conducted with school nurses and the shelter service provider AMI.
  • A parent can now enter the shelter following their work shift or come back later than the final check-in.
  • Providing at least three different options for weekday-daytime services and activities, including: 1) Opening a day shelter at La Collaborativa in Chelsea, which has been providing transportation and day services for approximately one-third (20) of families staying at the East Cambridge shelter; (2) The Somerville YMCA is also offering daytime services and opportunities to shelter families and their children, and (3) Other families are now receiving services at the Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI) in Boston.
  • Contracting with a new food vendor and security company.

There's more about this progress here on my State House blog, as well as in Cambridge Day.

In closing, there can be no doubt we are facing an unprecedented housing emergency.

Housing is the number issue facing our community. Housing policy also intersects and overlaps with numerous public health emergencies (e.g. racism, inequality, mental health, overdose, et al.) and other man-made disasters (e.g. climate change and the MBTA). Never has housing been this unaffordable to this many people, and never has homelessness been this pervasive. As your State Rep., I remain committed to advocating for policies that work for our community and passing legislation to address this ongoing emergency and to ultimately win housing as a human right, guaranteed to all.

Thank you, as always, for being an informed and engaged constituent. Please do not hesitate to reach out with thoughts or concerns on this or any other matter.

Yours in service,

Rep. Mike Connolly