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New rules from Healey administration may limit stays at Massachusetts' overflow shelters

Beds for emergency family shelter set up in the Melnea A. Cass Recreational Complex in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.
Sam Drysdale
Beds for emergency family shelter set up in the Melnea A. Cass Recreational Complex in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

Families eligible for state safety-net shelters will need to be recertified each month to remain in the overflow family shelter sites as of May 1, according to Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey's office.

The governor announced the new requirements as the overflow sites swell with families in need of housing and unable to secure a spot in the larger Emergency Assistance shelter system that Healey capped at 7,500 families last fall.

Families will need to show documented engagement in case management and rehousing efforts monthly in order to remain eligible to stay at the overflow sites, where families have temporary beds available to them.

"We have said for months now that our system is at capacity, and we do not have the space, providers or funding to continue expanding,” said Emergency Assistance Director General Scott Rice. "This new certification policy is a responsible step to address the capacity constraints at our safety-net sites. Families will need to demonstrate that they’ve taken action to get on a path toward independence and out of shelter."

The administration also announced Monday that it will be opening a new overflow site next month at the former Chelsea Soldiers' Home facility, which is currently vacant. The former soldier's home is slated to be demolished, as the state opened a new facility last year now known as the Massachusetts Veterans Home at Chelsea.

At full capacity, it will be able to accommodate about 100 families, according to Healey's team. Services will be available on site, including assistance with applying for work authorizations, connecting with employers, and finding stable housing.

Under the recertification process, families "will be evaluated on whether they have participated in state-provided services to help them move toward independence, including applying for a work authorization, participating in a workforce training program, submitting job applications, taking English classes, and engaging in a search for housing. Families will be permitted to remain at sites as long as they continue to engage [in] these services and activities," the administration said.

The administration does not yet know whether families who fail to recertify would remain on the Emergency Assistance shelter waitlist. As of last week, there were 781 families on the waitlist for shelter.

The decision on whether a family will be taken off the waitlist related to their recertification in overflow housing, according to an Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities spokesperson, will depend on whether lawmakers and Healey decide to apply time limits to traditional Emergency Assistance sites — which both the House and Senate have now moved to do.

Kelly Turley of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless said she is concerned about the recertification process becoming another barrier to housing for homeless families, and hopes the administration does not use whether or not a family is successfully recertified as a deciding factor to remove them from the waitlist for more stable shelter.

"The application for EA shelter and the overflow sites are interconnected, but there are reasons why a family in an overflow site -- sometimes they are only there for a night, they can have intermittent access to services -- it may be more challenging for families to comply with rehousing assistance than if they were in a more stable and traditional shelter with more time to access support," she said.

She added that she hopes the new requirements, and possible consequences of failing to comply, are clearly communicated to families, many of whom don't speak English as a first language.

"The new overflow sites are a bit of a bureaucracy on top of a bureaucracy. A lot of the rules aren't clear and are confusing for families," Turley said. "These families are experiencing trauma, whether from being homeless or homeless and traveling from their home countries. There's so much information coming at families while they're seeking longer-term housing as well as shelter. It can be overwhelming to understand everything that's expected of them."

An administration spokesperson said they will ensure that information about the effects of a failure to qualify for certification is fully communicated to families in advance of the policy going into effect.

The Chelsea site will become available for shelter use before another overflow site the administration has propped up comes offline. The Melnea A. Cass Recreational Complex in Roxbury has been used to temporarily accommodate about 100 families, or 400 individuals, since late January. However, the rec center will be converted back for community use by June 1.

"We're grateful the administration continues to look for overflow spaces for families on the waiting list. Many of the families who haven't been offered a spot in the overflow sites continue to stay in places not meant for human habitation, like Logan Airport, emergency rooms, or in cars. So it really is critical," Turley said.

There are currently 105 families being housed at the Roxbury center, according to Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand. The Registry of Deeds building in East Cambridge is accommodating 60 families. Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy and a location in Revere are accommodating high priority families with health conditions and being used as a safety-net site, with 22 in Quincy and 53 in Revere.

The recertification policy will only affect the Cambridge, Roxbury and Chelsea shelters, as Revere and Quincy are also clinical and safety risk assessment sites, Hand said.

United Way of Massachusetts Bay is also helping families find overnight shelter in partnership with the state, with nine safety-net sites accommodating about 124 families total, Hand said. The new recertification policy does not apply to safety net sites operated by the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, the governor's office said.

A representative from United Way did not immediately reply to a question about why the nonprofit would not follow the same policy as state-run facilities.

The announcements come as both the House and Senate have passed a bill to put time limits on the amount of time a family can stay in Emergency Assistance shelter — an idea that Healey has also indicated she supports.

The House and Senate bills could push some people out of the EA system after nine months, marking a major shift in a state with a law guaranteeing access to shelter for eligible families and pregnant women.

Lawmakers and the administration have been arguing in recent weeks that the state cannot sustain funding of the Emergency Assistance system as families have overwhelmed shelters, partially due to an influx of newly-arrived refugees and immigrants.

The overburdened system is poised to explode to nearly $1 billion both this fiscal year and the following fiscal year, when lawmakers only originally planned to spend $325 million on shelters in fiscal 2024.

Neither House Speaker Ron Mariano nor Senate President Karen Spilka returned requests for comment on the administration's new announcement.

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