25 Investigates: Thousands of local MA families among those in overwhelmed emergency shelter system

BOSTON — Four walls.

Two beds.

One small refrigerator.

Jessica Hermenegildo, a mother of a 10-year-old girl, said she is paying night-by-night for a hotel room in central Massachusetts.

“I try to make things as normal as I possibly can,” she said.

Hermenegildo said she has been homeless for three months now – after she fell behind on rent and was evicted.

“I just wish that I didn’t have to struggle,” she said, choking up as she spoke. “You know, I wish she didn’t have to experience that or see that.”

She is among a growing number of local Massachusetts residents facing evictions and homelessness post-pandemic who have found a safety net stretched so thin that it has left hundreds - if not thousands – of families with no place to go.

Currently, about 51% of families – upwards of 3,800 families – in the emergency shelter system are local Massachusetts residents.

That is according to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which provided data to 25 Investigates.

Democratic Gov. Maura Healey’s administration says 391 families were on a waitlist for emergency shelter as of Dec. 28.

As of Feb. 20, that waitlist has grown to 729 families.

About 54% of families on the waitlist are new arrivals to Massachusetts.

“For many of the families that are on the waiting list right now, they’ve been on the waiting list for weeks or months,” Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said.

Massachusetts’ prohibitive cost of housing, limited affordable housing options, spike in evictions following the expiration of pandemic protections and surge in newly arriving migrant families, has led to an overwhelmed emergency shelter system – and a $1 billion-and-counting price-tag for taxpayers.

And it’s left adrift people like Hermenegildo who are told there’s no room in shelters.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow,” Hermenegildo said. “I’m at the end of my resources. I don’t have anything else left.”


For decades, Massachusetts’ right-to-shelter law has provided emergency shelter to thousands of families who have found themselves without a home and facing risks to their personal health and safety.

25 Investigates obtained state data showing the emergency assistance caseload nearly doubled from 3,618 families in December 2022 to 7,543 in December 2023.

That included about 3,650 families staying in traditional shelters and 3,832 families staying at hotels at year end 2023.

Families are staying an average of 15 months in emergency shelter.

The numbers of families in emergency shelter began steadily rising by summer 2021 – before the rise in migrant arrivals to Massachusetts from states including Texas and Florida.

Still, the number of new arrivals last year, along with the rising demand for emergency housing among local families, led Gov. Healey to declare a state of emergency in August.

Changes in federal immigration policy have helped fuel the rise in migrants: including the May 2023 end of a COVID-19 rule that turned many immigrants away at the border.

The number of people granted asylum in Boston rose to 1,676 in fiscal year 2023, up from 1,156 in 2022– according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Denials also rose to 2,018 in 2023, up from 888 in 2022.

Massachusetts saw 1,248 refugees arriving from October 2022 through September 2023 – up from 512 the previous year, according to the Refugee Processing Center.

For the first time ever, Massachusetts instituted a cap of 7,500 families – roughly 24,000 individuals – in emergency shelter in October.

“The shelter system reached a capacity limit due to not having enough shelter space, service providers, or funding to safely expand beyond 7,500 families,” Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities spokesperson Kevin Connor said.

At the time, about half of the individuals in emergency shelter were children.

Gov. Healey said the administration was seeing a “drop” in new arrivals seeking emergency shelter.

But the state estimated that the EA system would need to accommodate over 10,000 families by spring 2024 if the administration did not institute a capacity limit, according to Connor.

Turley said that the 7,500-family cap is arbitrary and does not accurately reflect how much emergency shelter the state could provide for families.

“Right now, the state isn’t providing necessary benefits to many families, regardless of whether they’ve been in Massachusetts for a long time or are new residents in the Commonwealth,” Turley said.

Civil rights groups unsuccessfully sued to fight the cap, and said that the state was leaving thousands of families without emergency shelter. A judge ultimately ruled against them.

Turley said she wants to see Massachusetts launch a more comprehensive plan and set aside more funding to keep people out of emergency shelter in the first place.

“Where we’re seeing now is that as the state looks for additional overflow spaces, that spaces are becoming available,” Turley said.

Over this winter, the state has opened emergency shelters in a recreation center in Roxbury, a former courthouse in East Cambridge as well at sites in Revere and Quincy.

Of the 729 families on the waitlist, 348 families are staying at overflow emergency shelter sites.

“We’ve seen the state, when push comes to shove, be able to bring more hotel units online or convert community centers and alternative spaces into shelters,” she said. “And while those spaces may not be ideal, it’s also better than what we were seeing – many families on the floor at Logan Airport or in hospital emergency rooms or in places like South Station.”


Massachusetts residents can apply for emergency shelter if they are at or below 115% of the federal poverty guidelines, pregnant or have children under 21.

For years, Massachusetts has limited the program to residents who need shelter because of no-fault eviction, domestic violence, disaster, condemnation, foreclosure or if children are exposed to a “substantial health and safety risk.” Examples of such risks can include staying in a place not meant for human habitation, like a car or emergency room.

Migrant families do not get a preference over local families on the waitlist, according to the Healey administration.

Families with certain clinical, medical or safety risks can however be moved up on the list.

But Turley said that families often have no idea where they stand, or whether they qualify for a priority.

“We’re seeing that it’s pretty opaque, that families don’t know what kind of priority status they have, that they may know they’re on the waiting list, but they don’t know what priority they have and how long they’ll be there,” Turley said.

She added: “We are asking state officials to make that clearer, to make sure our families know that they’ve been approved for shelter, but they can’t be placed right away with their priority status.”

Jessica Hermenegildo said she’s struggling to find help through Massachusetts emergency shelter system and says she’s missing paperwork as she tries to find help through other programs like HomeBASE, which currently can provide up to $30,000 in housing assistance over a two-year period.

“Why are we being told we don’t, there’s no resources?” she said. “You don’t qualify for emergency shelter.”

“Why can’t we get the help that we need here?” she said.

Hermenegildo said when she has called asking about emergency shelters, she’s been told that shelters are full and provided with lists of shelters for mothers and children.

“A lot of places it’s first come, first serve, or the numbers that they’re providing us don’t exist anymore,” she said.

Turley, of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said families in crisis are struggling to understand what kinds of documents they must provide for housing aid.

More families seeking emergency shelter – means more struggling to sift through paperwork.

And she said besides families who are on the waitlist – she is worried about the number of residents who may feel discouraged to apply or lack the paperwork needed.

“There are many other families who are still applying for shelter or are ineligible because of the really intricate eligibility requirements that are set out,” Turley said.

“When families are actively, you know, been evicted or they’re, they’re fleeing violence, they may not have all those documents with them,” she said.

Turley said families are struggling to keep their information up to date, to ensure they are available to get the call when shelter spaces become available and where they should go while they are on the waitlist.

And she said other families are too discouraged to apply for the waitlist – meaning it’s hard to know how many families are in the lurch.

“What we’re seeing starting to see hundreds, if not thousands of families that are in that process looking for shelter,” she said. “They’re hearing that there’s a waiting list. They’re discouraged from even completing an application, and they don’t necessarily have a safe place to go.”

Jessica Hermenegildo said as she applies for HomeBase, she’s having trouble arranging transportation to get an official copy of a document she said she’s already submitted to another state agency.

“They make it almost impossible to have things happen,” she said. “It’s kind of like they want you to kind of give up or.”

Turley said that’s an example of a hurdle the state should tackle, while addressing any privacy concerns.

“Certainly there needs to be other ways – instead of requiring families often in their most challenging experience of their lives, the most traumatic time of their lives, to be able to run around and gather the paperwork,” she said.


For some newcomers, churches are filling in the gaps.

31-year-old Olanda Fontin said she, her husband and 2-year-old daughter left Haiti fleeing political violence and instability.

Fontin, who spoke to 25 Investigates in her native French, said she wants to support her family by working toward a career as a doctor.

“My goal is to continue my pursuit of medicine because I want to be able to save lives,” she said through a translator.

“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “That’s been my dream since I was a child. And that’s the reason why my family put together all the funds and the means that they had so that they could send me out of the country.”

Fontin spoke of the violence that has erupted in Haiti since the July 2021 assassination of the country’s president.

“In Haiti, there’s such an epidemic of kidnapping,” she said. “When they don’t find the amount of money that they’re asking for, they kill the person.”

Bethel AME church in Jamaica Plain is now helping her family seek housing and work authorization.

“There’s a lot of risks, a lot of people being killed and a lot of other things happening, but they come here to be able to find a better life,” Marc Germain, project manager of Bethel AME Church, said.

The church, through a partnership with Immigrant Family Services Institute, is providing help with everything from filling out forms, to English and computer and technology classes.

“IFSE’s been able to help them with the range of social services and filling out documentation so that they can stay in the country legally, work in the country legally,” Germain said.

He said more churches should consider running programs like Bethel AME’s as the nation awaits federal funding and immigration relief.

“One of the critical needs that is happening now that we tell people about is that a lot of shelters are at capacity,” Germain said.

Olanda said temporary housing has proven most invaluable.

“Imagine me and my husband and my two-year-old daughter being outside, where I know other migrants are,” she said.

Germain said he has at times faced people who ask why we should help migrant families when other families are suffering too.

Germain said waves of new arrivals have long faced challenges when coming to the U.S.

But he calls on people to view migrant families as a source of innovation and growth at a time when the state faces workforce and demographic challenges.

“Those folks have often felt initial resistance and then they’re integrated into the community at large,” Germain said. “And so, what I tell people when they say, ‘Why?’ We say, ‘Why not?’”


The estimated cost to the state for the overburdened emergency shelter system?

Over $1 billion. And counting.

And, so far, no additional money from the federal government is on the way to help.

Massachusetts has so far spent $360 million on emergency housing assistance for the fiscal year ending in mid-2024.

The state projects $915 million in spending for the fiscal year ending in mid-2025.

A memo to lawmaker says the state is coming up short $224 million for the fiscal year 2024 and faces a $590 million budget gap in fiscal year 2025.

Gov. Healey’s budget includes another $325 million for emergency assistance for family shelters – level with the 2024 fiscal year.

Healey plans to use one-time pandemic relief funds to cover the $224 million deficiency, and then half of the $915 million expected costs.

Still, the governor said she is looking to rein in spending and take a close look at the shelter system.

“Our shelter system can’t expand indefinitely,” Healey said in October.

The state spent $180 million on emergency assistance in fiscal year 2021, in comparison.

In her budget presentation in late January, Healey discussed potential changes to the right-to-shelter law – but she did not go into detail.

“It’s an evolving situation,” she said. “Revenues are evolving. We’re making certain reforms to the EA system as well because that’s a system that’s been in place for a while. And you know our job as long as we’re here is to make sure that we’re doing things in a smart way.”

The governor declined to go into specifics about potential changes to the right-to-shelter law when asked by a reporter.

“I don’t want to overstate reforms right now are where we are in terms of analysis,” Healey said. “But you know it is something that we’ve got to address, right. This is a challenge, and we want to make sure that we’re supporting our families and doing the best we can in terms of having a system that works for all.”

Healey’s budget does include a study to launch a rate-setting process for emergency shelter providers – to ensure pay parity between shelter workers and other social service workers.

The governor stressed that addressing wide-ranging aspects of the housing crisis is a top priority for her administration.

The Healey administration is pushing several housing investments in the latest budget proposal, including:

  • $219 million for the Massachusetts rental voucher program: a 22% increase that the administration said would support over 10,000 voucher holders.
  • $112 million for subsidies for local housing authorities
  • $197.4 million for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition – a $7.4 million increase. The funding would provide a maximum benefit of $7,000 over 12 months to help prevent evictions.
  • $57.3 million – a 55% increase – to raise the Homebase benefit from $20,000 to $45,000 to provide 36 months – up from 24 months – in rental assistance.

And, the governor wants lawmakers to back her $4 billion housing bond bill aimed at helping create new affordable housing units.

Meanwhile, Turley said she’s concerned about what kind of reforms to the right-to-shelter law that lawmakers could make this year.

“For families in shelter, there is a dark cloud hanging over them in some ways, because there’s talk about time limiting access to shelter,” she said.

Turley said Massachusetts has not imposed a strict limit on how long a family can stay in emergency shelter.

“To kick them out before they found long term housing, or able to even find temporary housing outside of the system, we think would be cruel and would really setback the any progress that families have made,” Turley said.

“Families that would most negatively be impacted by an arbitrary time limit are our families that are dealing with disabilities, families that are newly arrived immigrants, families that have other challenges, families of color, Black and Latinx families that are disproportionately represented in the system, who may be facing additional challenges to securing long term housing,” Turley said.

She said the state still has work to do to meet the need for rising demand for emergency shelter.

She said the state’s investment in housing still is not enough as pandemic relief has dried up.

“We were able to help thousands of families stay in place to be able to pay for back rent, to pay for back utility bills, pay startup costs for an apartment, and that extended to households of all configurations,” she said. “And since those protections have expired, since those funds have dried up, we’re seeing more and more families and individuals in housing court and have executions of their evictions.”

“If we can go back to doing what we know works and making those investments and having the political will to do that, I think we can move forward,” she said.

Jeff Thielman, president and CEO of the International Institute of New England, said the state “should be applauded for what we’re doing to house people and keep them safe.”

“They are resilient folks who’ve come to Massachusetts,” he said. “They started off in Haiti, many of them went to Latin America. They’ve worked their way up the continent, crossed the Southern border, found their way to Massachusetts and are sleeping in Logan Airport. They’re strong-willed folks.”

Thielman’s organization, which provides legal services and case management, called on the federal government to expedite process of hearings for asylum cases and make federal funds available for English classes.

He said his organization helps migrants without children who are not eligible for emergency shelters, and whose services are often limited to cash assistance from the federal government.

“If a reasonable amount of money were available, these folks in hotels could be taking English classes and better prepared to enter the workforce,” Thielman said. “That could be happening right now.”

“That make a lot of sense that make it easier for people to come to Massachusetts where we have a worker shortage and where we’ve lost population,” he said.


Healey has also claimed that no other state has pushed to secure work authorizations for new arrivals.

In a February report to lawmakers, her administration said that 2,713 migrants, refugees or asylum seekers in emergency shelter now have work authorizations.

The administration told 25 Investigates that 1,005 families have exited the emergency shelter system since Sept. 1.

That includes 660 families who have exited since Nov. 1 alone.

Healey’s administration has launched job skills training programs aimed at helping over 1,500 families find jobs.


The governor is proposing using one-time, left-over pandemic funds to help cover the cost of the rise in emergency shelter housing.

That has sparked a conversation among some lawmakers, including Rep. Russell Holmes.

“It really has brought about the question around who gets housing,” Holmes said in a recent budget hearing.

Holmes said it is time to look at what Massachusetts is providing to *all* vulnerable communities.

“My biggest concern is that we’ve been, for 14 years, telling folks in my district that we don’t have enough money,” he said.

Holmes said it is tough for lawmakers to explain how the state can provide additional overflow sites for the emergency shelter system at a time when other public housing costs have fallen by the wayside.

“Screen doors and not fixing simple things, like painting is not done,” Holmes said. “And so, I got a phone call from members of Franklin Field saying: ‘why am I still seeing a crack in my door?’”

“We as a Commonwealth have to come up with an answer that is satisfactory for our communities,” he said.

Holmes said he asked administration officials about whether the state will provide funds for existing public housing repair costs, too.

“The budget team said it’s something they want to look at,” Holmes said. “And, of course, that’s not a satisfactory answer to me.”

Meanwhile, people in crisis now remain lost in a complicated web that they thought would be their safety net.

“You have to stay positive,” central Massachusetts mother Jessica Hermenegildo said. “You have to think positive.”

“As long as I have, we have each other, that’s all right,” she said, wiping away tears. “And I just wish things weren’t so hard. And I wish that.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

Download the FREE Boston 25 News app for breaking news alerts.

Follow Boston 25 News on Facebook and Twitter. | Watch Boston 25 News NOW

Comments on this article