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Lawmakers demand info as cost of shelter crisis rises in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Statehouse.
Jesse Costa
The Massachusetts Statehouse.

Legislators who have not always felt adequately informed about the state's emergency family shelter crisis will soon get more regular reports on the shelter landscape from Gov. Maura Healey's administration.

The $3.1 billion supplemental budget Healey signed late Monday includes a series of reporting requirements that were attached to a $250 million infusion of shelter funds that is only expected to cover shelter costs through the winter and into the spring.

The requirements include disclosing the number of families and new immigrants enrolled in shelters, how much the state is spending on the emergency assistance system, and the number of families on the waitlist Healey created in connection with her cap on shelter spots.

Though the rapid growth of families in need has been largely driven by an influx of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers entering the state, there has been little available information about just how many of the families in the EA system are new arrivals.

Housing and Livable Communities Secretary Ed Augustus's office maintains a dashboard of EA data, which includes information on the total number of families currently enrolled in the system and how many were enrolled in the last 24 hours. It does not show how many of those new enrollees are new immigrants -- though Healey previously said that about half of those in the system are U.S. citizens.

The dashboard also shows a map of Massachusetts with broad data on how many families are enrolled by municipality. Boston, Springfield, Worcester and Lynn have had "over 200 families" for at least a month; whereas other towns are categorized as having "between 51 and 200 families," or "1 and 50 families."

The supplemental budget Healey signed Monday will require her administration to provide a breakdown of families in shelters, hotels and motels delineated by municipality.

The Executive Office of Administration and Finance and the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities will need to submit these reports on EA data to the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means every two weeks.

The law also requires reporting on the number of individuals and families with work authorizations who entered the system as migrants.

Healey has repeatedly called on the federal government to expedite the work authorization process to help migrants who are eager to work to leave shelter and support their families financially.

More than 1,000 migrants received help with their work authorizations during a clinic held in November by the Healey administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. State officials have also connected shelter residents to job training programs.

The administration will also have to provide an update on the total amount spent on the emergency housing program, including shelter, food and other services. This includes a breakdown of the total amount spent on municipal supports and given to school districts, delineated by municipality.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in August, Healey said the state was spending more than $45 million each month to support EA families, and still lacked the tools to meet the rapidly rising demand.

On the day she sent the letter, Aug. 8, there were a total of 5,586 families in the state's shelters. As of Tuesday, there were 7,527, plus 174 families on a waitlist.

Despite the 35 percent increase in the number of families the EA system is housing, the administration has not provided another update on how much is being spent each month.

Asked Wednesday if there was a more recent monthly spending figure, an EOHLC spokesperson said he did not have one and it would likely take a few days to get one.

The only other financial picture of how much the EA system growth is costing the state came out of a hearing when the Healey administration was sued for imposing a cap on the number of families the shelters could house.

EOHLC Deputy Chief Financial Officer Sarah Barrese wrote in an affidavit that the $325 million appropriated for the EA system in the fiscal year 2024 budget would be depleted by Jan. 13, 2024, if the system continued to grow at the same rate.

In addition to reporting overall expenditures, the supplemental budget requires the administration to disclose "any projected deficiency in funds related to said crisis in fiscal year 2024 and projected costs related to said crisis through the end of fiscal year 2025."

Healey officials will also have to give the Legislature 30 days notice before any change to EA benefits, including the limiting how long a family can stay in shelter.

Additionally, by Jan. 1, 2024, the Executive Office of Administration and Finance will have to submit a report to the budget committees on how many families have applied for emergency shelter above the 7,500 capacity limit set by Healey, the number of families on the waitlist, and what immediate services are being provided for those families.

Current public reporting of EA data through EOHLC's dashboard does not include the number of families on the waitlist.

Lawmakers said for months that they did not have enough information on the shelter crisis to send more money to the strained system.

Healey declared a state of emergency over the shelter crisis on Aug. 8, and lawmakers began to air their frustration with the administrations' lack of detailed reporting a month later.

In a closed-door meeting on Sept. 7 with Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, representatives said they needed more information from the governor's office.

"The communication has been less than desirable from all aspects down to the municipal level," Majority Leader Michael Moran told reporters at the time. "That's the frustration that a lot of our colleagues expressed, a number of them expressed, and the administration took some ownership of that. And they're committed to improving the communication lines, not just with the Legislature, but also with local municipal elected officials."

Later that month, after Healey had asked for the $250 million to steer towards shelters, House Speaker Ron Mariano said that the House was "still searching for some answers" about the scope of the fast-changing humanitarian crisis.

"Right now, I think that we're still searching for some answers on the potential total expenditures that we'll be dealing with," Mariano said at the time. "There's a lot of questions around the number that need to be tightened up."

He added, "The administration is doing the best that they can do to gather all this information and give us some hard numbers, and it's not an easy thing to do. It's people coming from all different countries and coming in at all different points of entry. So it's a difficult challenge."

When asked by the News Service in November for data on the total number of families in the EA system dating back to Jan. 1 of this year, an EOHLC spokesperson said the office did not immediately have this data. It took close to a month for the office to compile the information on how many families were enrolled in shelter every day.

In a debate over the supplemental budget on Nov. 15, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said the reporting requirements would help better inform the Legislature about future decisions they may need to allocate additional money for in the future.

"It requires robust reporting -- every 14 days -- to ensure strong oversight and transparency of state spending related to the ongoing emergency shelter crisis through year 2025," he said.

Many legislators are growing concerned that shelter demands are going to pull funding away from other priorities.

"This is inevitably going to start to crowd out funding for things that people in the Commonwealth want to see," House Minority Leader Brad Jones said during recent debate.

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