Massachusetts Senate passes $840 million bill to fund emergency shelter system

A DCR worker walks through over 300 Army cots on the gym floor as state and local officials toured the Melnea A. Cass Recreational Complex, which is temporarily housing over 300 migrants. Photo Courtesy of John Tlumack/The Boston Globe.

By Maria Pemberton

Boston University News Service

The Massachusetts Senate approved a $840 million supplemental budget to remedy the migrant crisis and emergency shelter system last week. The budget passed with overwhelming support in a vote of 32-8. 

This bill contained new provisions limiting the number of families in the system to 7,500 and the length of stay to 9 months with certain exceptions. Veterans, pregnant women, caretakers for family members with disabilities and individuals working towards a permit can renew 90-day extensions to their term. 

An amendment to the bill adds safety procedures, such as screenings to protect migrants staying in these shelters after a sexual assault incident at a center. Another amendment allows new mothers, not just pregnant women, to have a 90-day extension to their housing. 

The bill will fund the shelter system for the next 15 months, and Gov. Maura Healey’s administration will be in charge of directing the $840 million in that time. 

In an interview with GBH, Massachusetts Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland) said that this bill is meant to address the urgent and immediate need for housing by immigrants. She said that the bill will treat migrants with “dignity and respect.” 

This bill has been met with pushback, particularly from anti-homeless activists. The House bill that passed in early March limited stays to 12 months, but these new provisions decrease this window. The average emergency shelter stay is 13-14 months, according to WBUR

Advocates, such as Kelly Turley of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said they fear that overflow from these shelters will spill into other spaces not fit for housing. Boston’s Logan Airport housed 100-200 people from the Massachusetts Family Welcome Centers in January due to the caps on shelter populations. 

“If state lawmakers move forward with imposing an artificial time limit on how long families can stay in shelter, we hope that that is combined with increased resources for long-term housing supports like the Massachusetts rental voucher program or state-funded public housing, as well as increased investments in programs like HomeBASE that help families exit shelter into housing,” Turley said in an interview with WBUR

There are 730 families, approximately half of which are migrants, waitlisted for the shelter system, according to GBH. DaCosta, an immigrant that stayed in Logan Airport due to the limits on shelter capacity, emphasized that the need for housing is pressing. 

“If I have some place to stay,” he said in an interview with WBUR, “I can find a job and change everything.”

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