Mass. lawmakers set to vote on $250M in funding for emergency shelter crisis response

The $250 million that House Democrats want to infuse into the state’s emergency shelter crisis response should cover operations at least “early into the spring” amid a period of unprecedented demand, according to an architect of the proposal.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Aaron Michlewitz said he believes the bill his chamber will take up Wednesday should help the state navigate the strain on the shelters through the cold winter months.

After that, he said, lawmakers could revisit the topic with additional action or alter their approach to the crisis in the annual state budget, which the House typically debates in April.

“From what we gather, this would take us through the winter, neatly through the winter, and probably early into the spring,” Michlewitz told the News Service. “Then it will all depend at that point moving forward on how many families we have in the system.”

After weeks of allowing Gov. Maura Healey and her deputies to take the lead on the response to an unexpected surge of shelter-seekers, many of them migrants who recently arrived in the United States, the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday teed up a new plan that -- if the Senate agrees -- would represent a more forceful stance from lawmakers.

A wide-ranging spending bill the House plans to consider Wednesday includes $250 million more to respond to the crisis, matching the dollar amount Healey proposed in mid-September but now with a specific itemized breakdown of how it would be spent. The bill would steer $65 million to the emergency assistance shelter system itself and carve up the rest of the funding on related areas like reimbursing school districts for the cost of enrolling new students, wraparound services, resettlement agencies, and family welcome centers.

Michlewitz said House Democrats did not act sooner because they were waiting for the Healey administration to provide more clarity on how the $250 million she sought would be used and to estimate “potential run-out days” for existing shelter funding.

“Not having that in September or even into October made things a little challenging to understand,” the North End Democrat said. “How far along are we going to be? We’re not just looking at this potential budget bill, we’re looking at what we’re going to be doing in the spring and further on. So trying to map things out a little bit more strategically was part of the conversation as well.”

Healey administration officials have estimated the $325 million appropriated for the emergency assistance shelter system in the annual budget would last through January if the caseload remains around the 7,500-family cap. If the caseload stays there for the rest of the fiscal year, the administration estimated it would need another $210 million to cover all costs.

The House bill calls for $50 million of the newly proposed shelter funding to go toward the creation of an “overflow” site or sites, which would support eligible families who cannot immediately access emergency shelter once the administration establishes a capacity limit and waitlist in the coming days.

Michlewitz said his committee decided to propose $50 million for the overflow proposal based on conversations with the Healey administration and anti-homelessness advocates. He called it “a sufficient amount that would help us run an overflow site for a substantial period of time [and] get us also to the point beyond the bad-weather months.”

The bill would require the administration to launch a site or sites within 30 days of enactment. If officials fail to do so, they will be barred from capping shelter capacity until an overflow option comes online.

Michlewitz said the legislation does not specify exactly what those sites would do or where they must be located, though he said he expects them to offer a place to stay overnight for waitlisted families.

“The actual details of what would it entail, I think, we would leave that up to the administration to figure out,” he said. “We’re certainly trying to put it in an expedient manner so we can get it up and running pretty quickly.”

Even if the House’s proposed overflow site requirement makes it into a final law, the launch date will not arrive until mid-December at the earliest, leaving more than a month during which families might be placed onto a waitlist with no backup option provided by the state.

The Healey administration on Tuesday announced a new partnership with the United Way of Massachusetts Bay to provide “overnight safety-net shelter” for families and pregnant individuals who have no other shelter options.

Although the House did not release its proposed overflow site requirement until two and a half weeks after Healey signaled plans to limit capacity at 7,500 families, Michlewitz said he is worried about families who might fall through the cracks in the coming days.

“Obviously, we’re going to hit this cap, potentially in the next couple of days here,” Michlewitz said. “I think the House has had some real concerns related to what is going to happen to those families that don’t qualify for the risk assessment piece that the administration has put into their guidelines. Where do they go as they’re waiting to get into a potential shelter?”

House Speaker Ron Mariano previously said Michlewitz and Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Michael Rodrigues were negotiating the terms of a final supplemental budget before it emerged in either branch, but Michlewitz on Tuesday downplayed the degree to which there’s already an agreement between the two chambers.

“We had some discussions, but this is -- I don’t want to speak for the Senate. This is the House’s version of what we think is the right step to be taken,” he said of his private talks with Rodrigues.

A spokesperson for Senate President Karen Spilka on Tuesday said only that the Senate will review whatever the House approves.

Both branches must conclude formal lawmaking sessions for the year by Nov. 15 under legislative rules, leaving about a week for the Senate to roll out its response and achieve a final compromise with the House, unless Spilka attempts to move the budget through her chamber during an informal session that any single member could derail.

As for what else is on the to-do list in the next eight days, Michlewitz remained tight-lipped.

“I don’t want to specify yet. I want to get through tomorrow,” he replied when asked what other bills are on the House agenda. “There’s obviously going to be a number of amendments. I’ve been working with the speaker and our colleagues. We’ll probably be in [session] next week, but I don’t know exactly what we’ll be doing yet, and I think we’re still working through a couple of things with the hope of doing something.”

A long-term care bill that Mariano has identified early this year as a priority is “one of the options that we’re looking at right now,” Michlewitz said.

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

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