POV: What’s Next for Massachusetts’ Right to Shelter Law?
State leaders must act quickly to ensure that the law is upheld and that adequate shelter is available for all families in the commonwealth
Recently, a handful of Boston University law students and I traveled north of the city to help recently arrived migrants at an all-day legal clinic. Mothers with 15-day-old babies, two elementary school–aged boys tossing a football, and fathers with toddlers on their hips were just a few of the families we worked with over the course of the day. They had fled violence, political instability, and natural disasters in Venezuela, Haiti, and Mexico, and most countries in between. All of them were housed in local shelters and motels, along with about 3,000 other migrant families across the state. But now, that’s changing.
Last month, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey announced that the state would impose limits on its 40-year-old “right to shelter law.” That legislation, passed in 1983 after then-Governor Michael Dukakis promised it on the campaign trail, guarantees shelter to families (but not individuals) in desperate need. The law was the first of its kind in the country. Today, skyrocketing housing prices and the arrival of migrants, in combination with other factors, has led to an increasing need for shelter for Massachusetts families.
The governor declared a state of emergency and appealed to the federal government for additional aid and help expediting work permits, but it wasn’t enough. By October, she said the state was reaching its limit and was imposing a cap of 7,500 families in shelter.
The new rules mean that any family currently seeking shelter under the law will be triaged according to a four-tiered system. The highest priority will include women facing a high-risk pregnancy, families with a member who has a tracheotomy or an infant, and families at risk for domestic violence.
In the meantime, the Massachusetts state legislature took steps to increase available resources, introducing a supplemental spending bill that includes $250 million for the state’s emergency shelter system. But the week before Thanksgiving, the legislature ended formal sessions for the calendar year without approving the additional funds.
Of course, the problem isn’t just shelter. Recently arrived migrants want to work—they are eager to provide for their families, contribute to their communities, and find safety and security in our state. At the legal clinic we attended, organized by local legal services organizations, in coordination with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), our goal was to help immigrant families apply for work authorization. Without access to work authorization, our noncitizen neighbors are not eligible to work, and if they do, are much more likely to face exploitation and abuse given their undocumented status. By contrast, access to work authorization will enable families to quickly get on their feet and support themselves.
At this point, the cap has been reached and families are actively being placed on waiting lists. With nowhere to sleep and temperatures dropping into the upper 20s at night, families are sleeping on the street or scrambling for a spot in hospital emergency rooms that are not equipped to house them. In concert with substantial financial support from the federal government and the expediting of work authorization by USCIS, our state leaders must act quickly to ensure that our historic right-to-shelter law is upheld, and that adequate shelter is available for all families in the commonwealth.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at firstname.lastname@example.org. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.