Healey declares state of emergency amid migrant shelter crisis, new relief fund launched

BOSTON — Gov. Maura Healey has declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts due to the “rapidly rising numbers of migrant families” arriving in the Bay State in need of shelter and services, with state officials calling the current expansion on the state’s shelter system “unsustainable.”

State officials on Tuesday also said that the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and The Boston Foundation have launched the Massachusetts Migrant Families Relief Fund to assist new migrant arrivals in Massachusetts.

Healey’s declaration “serves as a notice to the federal government and the Commonwealth that the state’s shelter system is rapidly expanding capacity in an unsustainable manner, and that further assistance is urgently needed,” Healey said in a statement on Tuesday.

The demand for emergency shelter in Massachusetts has skyrocketed over the past year.

There are currently nearly 5,600 families, or more than 20,000 people living in emergency state shelter, including children and pregnant women, many of whom are migrants who recently arrived in Massachusetts, officials said. That’s up from around 3,100 families a year ago.

“That figure is 80% higher than it was just one year ago,” Healey said at a press conference Tuesday. “It represents more than 20,000 people.”

Massachusetts spends around $45 million a month on emergency assistance for families, according to Healey.

Families are being housed in shelters, dorms and even Joint Base Cape Cod.

Her emergency declaration places the National Guard on standby and pressures the Biden administration to provide work permits and financial help.

Meanwhile, the number of families leaving emergency shelter for permanent housing has dwindled, in large part due to a lack of affordable housing options, officials said.

“I am declaring a state of emergency in Massachusetts and urging my partners in the federal government to take the action we need to address this crisis by streamlining the work authorization process and passing comprehensive immigration reform,” Healey said. “Many of the new arrivals to our state desperately want to work, and we have historic workforce demands across all industries. I am also calling on all of our partners – from cities and towns to the faith community, philanthropic organizations, and human service providers – to rise to this challenge and do whatever you can to help us meet this moment.”

This year, the state’s Emergency Assistance system has spread to more than 80 communities, and state officials have added thousands of new units of emergency assistance housing, launched new shelter sites, including activating 50 National Guard Members at Joint Base Cape Cod, and created Family Welcome Centers to serve as central intake centers to connect families with shelter and services.

“Despite these efforts, demand has continued to rise at a pace that the Emergency Assistance system cannot sustain,” Healey said.

On July 31, state officials announced the opening of a migrant shelter and resource center on the campus of Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy.

The “Family Welcome Center” on the private, Christian college campus in Quincy’s Wollaston section is the second site to be opened in Massachusetts since June.

In her statement, Healey said she is calling “on bipartisan leaders in Congress to address outdated and punitive immigration laws.”

The governor also called on “the cities and towns, charities, advocates, faith organizations and providers to continue to partner with the administration to meet the need for shelter and work.” Information about how the public can help is available at mass.gov/sheltercrisis. Anyone who can help should contact the state at shelterhelp@mass.gov or by dialing 211, which will be monitored by MEMA.

In May, the state launched the Immigrant Assistance Services program, awarding $1.75 million to the program, which provides case management, legal services and other support for families in state shelters.

Healey said the program, “not yet replicated in any other state, is providing an unprecedented level of legal support toward asylum, work authorization, and other legal steps to help new arrivals integrate into Massachusetts.”

The governor said the state is also working to establish new pathways for new arrivals to secure work, urging federal officials “to expedite and streamline the work authorization process.”

“State employees and our partners have been miracle workers throughout this crisis – going above and beyond to support families and using every tool at their disposal to expand shelter capacity by nearly 80 percent in the last year. But in recent months, demand has increased to levels that our emergency shelter system cannot keep up with, especially as the number of families leaving shelter has dwindled due to a lack of affordable housing options and barriers to securing work,” said Healey.

In a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Healey pointed to work authorizations as a primary driver of the crisis. She called on the federal government “to take urgent action to streamline and expedite work authorizations and increase funding to states to assist in providing shelter and services to families.”

Lenita Reason, executive director of the Brazilian Worker Center in Boston, said it’s time for the federal government to act.

“We are asking the federal administration to speed up the process and let people be able to work and provide for themselves,” Reason said.

Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll said in a statement that the state’s Emergency Assistance system “is designed to be a temporary, emergency safety-net program. It is not equipped to handle the demand that we have seen in recent months. While we have made herculean efforts to expand capacity as much as possible, we’ve reached a point where the expansion is unsustainable.”

“We know what it will take to truly address the root causes of this emergency – rapidly increasing housing production across the state and implementing comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level, including work authorizations,” Driscoll said.

Meanwhile, Healey said the Migrant Families Relief Fund will “rapidly deploy emergency financial assistance” through a network of human services and shelter organizations in Massachusetts “to ensure individuals, children, and families have access to essential needs (temporary accommodations food, clothing, diapers, hygiene items, transportation).” The fund will also fund “health screenings, translation services, legal assistance, work authorizations, ESOL classes, and other socio-economic and cultural integration supports.”

In a statement, M. Lee Pelton, president and CEO of The Boston Foundation, said the foundation is banding together with the United Way and community leaders to assist new arrivals.

“As we face this unprecedented stress on our shelter system, we must embrace our collective responsibility to care for those individuals and families in need of housing and support, and to work in partnership with cities, towns and civic and community organizations leading this work,” Pelton said. “We are honored to join the Healey Administration, the United Way and the roster of community leaders who are tirelessly working to ensure the dignity, safety, and health and wellbeing of these new arrivals.”

Paul Craney, president of the conservative group Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said he has compassion for immigrants – but he believes there’s simply not enough funding.

“But at some point we also have to have compassion for the people currently here and if Massachusetts can’t care for the people already here, why should we bring more people in the state?” Craney said.

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

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