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Is implementing a time limit on stays in the Mass. emergency shelters the right fix?

House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz talks to reporters after a Democratic caucus in a file photo from March 6, 2024.
Sam Doran
State House News Service
House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz talks to reporters after a Democratic caucus in a file photo from March 6, 2024.

Massachusetts continues to struggle to shelter families in the state's emergency system amid a flood of migrant arrivals. As the only state that guarantees access to shelter, house lawmakers are endorsing the concept of time limits for stays. This comes following weekend evictions of migrantsin Chicago after 60 day stays and similar evictions in New York City and elsewhere. Chris Lisinski of the State House News Service explains what's similar to those cities and what’s different about our situation.

Chris Lisinksi, State House News Service: Well, as you mentioned right now, we're still the only state in the nation that by law guarantees access to shelter for some eligible families and pregnant women. The House is pushing to put a time limit on that. But as of right now, that is not yet law. And even if it were to become law in the version that the House envisioned, those time limits would be really different. I think you mentioned that Chicago is implementing something like a 60 day time limit. The House proposed a nine-month time limit, plus another three months for pregnant women, individuals with disabilities and veterans. So, there is a pretty big gap in how much shelter is available.

States all across the country, not just Massachusetts, cities all across the country, not just Boston, are grappling with a surge in demand for these shelter services amid an increase in newly arriving migrants. Another big difference is some other places appear to be getting more federal support than we are here. New York City appears to be in line for more than $100 million in relief. Obviously, it's way larger than Boston, but we still haven't seen anything even approaching that scale from the federal government heading to help us out here.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Can Massachusetts lawmakers assume that we're going to eventually be getting some help from the federal government, or not?

It sounds like most top Democrats have effectively given up hope on any help coming from the federal government. That was a key message you heard when the House did implement its proposal to limit shelter stays. They said, we think we're on our own at this point. This is not something we ever wanted to do. But in the absence of federal aid, it's something we have to do to prevent the system from collapsing under its own weight. You know, things could always change. Maybe Congress could find a path forward. But as for right now, I would say the Legislature and top Legislative Democrats feel like they're going it alone.

So, going back to the time limits, those were included in that House version of a budget bill. Do we get any indication if the Senate will agree?

No indication yet. Senate Democrats are remaining pretty tight lipped about what they think about the idea of limiting shelter stays. That kind of forecasts for us, that it's going to be a tense wait until the Senate surfaces something, and then a potentially difficult negotiation process with the House to iron out a final proposal. We should note, as always, that there's time pressure attached here beyond just the shelter funding, which I think Democrats have said they expect to need to do more money sometime in the spring before the system runs out. This bill also has woven into it language to make permanent some pandemic era policies like ‘Cocktails to Go’ and expanded outdoor dining that will expire at the end of March, if both branches don't act and get something to the governor's desk.

So, they are staring down a time deadline. Lawmakers last week forwarded a bill containing some extra funding in the annual allotment of local road and bridge maintenance money, but only equaling last year's total. This Chapter 90 program fund sends money to towns and cities to repair and maintain roads and bridges. Chris, with rising inflation pressure over the last year, isn't that essentially a decrease?

Yeah, it basically is. You know the total bottom line of this package now would be $375 million, which buys you a little bit less than it did one year ago. That's kind of a central problem that municipal leaders have been pushing for a long, long time. The actual Chapter 90 program itself has been funded around $200 million for most years in the past decade. This bill adds the extra money through some separate grant programs. One official said this year that the purchasing power of that, $200 million has dropped by something like 65% since the first year that lawmakers set that as the baseline (2012).

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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