Amid migrant crisis, Massachusetts debates how best to keep families housed

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate has approved limits on how long homeless families can stay in emergency state shelters as part of an $850 million plan to fund the system at the center of the migrant crisis.

Under the bill approved late Thursday by a vote of 32-8, the state would limit maximum stays to nine months with the possibility of 90 more days for veterans, pregnant women and people who are employed or enrolled in a job training program.

The bill already passed the House, and would provide funding covering the rest of fiscal 2024 and part of 2025. The bill is expected to go to a conference committee before Democratic Gov. Maura Healey signs it.

Currently, there are no limits on the time a family can spend in emergency housing.

Democratic state Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who chairs the Senate Ways & Means Committee, called this proposal fiscally responsible and humane. He noted that Massachusetts residents make up more than half the people in the shelters, and said “thousands” would end up on the streets if funding runs out.

“The plan we are considering today in the supplemental budget strikes an appropriate balance,” Rodrigues told lawmakers. “We responsibly ramped down projected program cost over time, placed families on a pathway to exit the shelter system into more stable housing, and put into motion a much larger public conversation on the future direction of the (emergency assistance) shelter program.”

Massachusetts isn’t alone in grappling with the growing influx of migrants by limiting the time homeless people can stay in shelters.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson announced in January that his city will again extend its 60-day limit on shelter stays for asylum-seekers, just days ahead of a deadline that could have evicted nearly 2,000 migrants. New York and Denver are among other cities limiting shelter time as they struggle to house and care for the new arrivals.

Several lawmakers criticized Congress for failing to pass the latest immigration bill. Republican state Sen. Bruce Tarr also questioned the amount being spent, which means less money for other housing programs.

“It is unfortunate that we and our colleagues in states all across the country are having to deal with the consequences of something that is well beyond our control and solutions to which are well beyond our authority,” Tarr said. “We find ourselves here without the resources, without the authority to solve what is, in essence, a federal problem, struggling with what will necessarily be imperfect solutions.”

The Massachusetts bill also includes money for job training. Its stated goal is to help families successfully exit the program and enter the workforce, while at the same time opening space for families who have been waitlisted as a result of the emergency regulations Healey issued last year.

Those regulations set a cap of 7,500 families participating in the emergency shelter program. Earlier this month, about 700 families were waiting to be enrolled, and that number is expected to grow.

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

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