Right to Shelter

Right to Shelter

© David Burton 2024


     Massachusetts is among the few places in the country with a “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law for homeless families, meaning low-income Massachusetts families with children under 21 or pregnant women who meet certain eligibility requirements have a legal right to shelter.

     Back in 1983, Massachusetts lawmakers passed legislation known as the “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law, which fulfilled then-Gov. Michael Dukakis’s promise of providing shelter to families in desperate need.
     Fast-forward some 40 years and the state’s emergency shelter system set a cap for the first time due to combined crises of a (1) lack of affordable housing and (2) an influx of migrants newly arriving in Massachusetts.
     In August, 2023, Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency that formally appealed to the federal government and private citizens to step up and help alleviate the overburdened system, officially known as Emergency Assistance (EA).
     As of Nov. 2023 there were over 24,000 individuals being temporarily housed by the emergency shelter system — Healey set a cap of 7,500 families — and, additional families in need of shelter were to be placed on waitlists for as long as the system remained at capacity.
     Here are answers to some questions about the law and a look at why in 2023 and 2024 state lawmakers were considering $250 million in their supplemental budget to fund the overburdened system.
     During Gov. Dukakis’s inaugural address in the State House shortly after being sworn in, he promised “to put together a statewide effort which will provide the necessities of life to those in desperate need.” Legislation that became the “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law was signed ten months after Dukakis’s speech.
     Under its “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law, ”Massachusetts became the first state in the nation that “would guarantee every man, woman and child a right to shelter.” Dukakis felt that “We ought to be able to do that in the richest country on the face of the Earth.”
     Massachusetts became the only state to guarantee a right to shelter in the United States in 1983 and so far remains the only state to do so. New York City has a similar policy to that of Massachusetts where all homeless individuals are guaranteed shelter — whereas only families are in Massachusetts. The policy in New York City is confined to the city limits. Massachusetts is the only state with a “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law that encompasses the entire state.
     When the emergency shelter program started in 1983, there were only three state-funded shelters in Massachusetts. Just 8 years later, when Dukakis left office, there were 105 state-funded shelters and Massachusetts spent more on affordable housing than other any state in the nation.
     In 2023, Massachusetts lawmakers were considering $250 million in additional funding for an emergency shelter crisis as families were being placed on waitlists due to a lack of shelter in which to place them. Migrant and homeless families seeking emergency shelter had to be to be placed on a waitlist after a state-imposed capacity limit was reached.
     On 8 August 2023, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey declared a state of emergency as the number of families living in state-funded shelters increased by 80% compared to a year previous.
     Also, the governor was asking the federal government for funding and to expedite work authorization papers for migrants.
     Massachusetts became the only state to guarantee a right to shelter in the United States in 1983 and so far remains the only state to do so. New York City has a policy similar to Massachusetts. But, in New York City, only homeless individuals are guaranteed shelter. In Massachusetts entire families are guaranteed shelter. The policy in New York City is confined to the city limits. Massachusetts is the only state with a “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law that encompasses the complete state.
     As of 14 November 2023, there were 7,537 families enrolled in the state’s shelter system. There were 3,832 families enrolled in hotels or motels, 3,646 enrolled in traditional shelters and 59 enrolled in temporary emergency shelters. The cities of Boston, Lynn, Worcester, and Springfield had the highest concentrations of families in shelters with over 200 enrolled in each. Other communities such as Plymouth, Salem, Greenfield and Chicopee had between 51 and 200 families enrolled — with a total of nearly three dozen communities in that range. About four dozen communities were hosting shelters with between one and 50 families enrolled. [Ref. 1]


  • Massachusetts guarantees emergency shelter for homeless families who meet certain eligibility requirements, subject to appropriation from the Legislature, per Section 30 of Part I, Title II, Chapter 23B of the Massachusetts General Laws.
  • Only families with children and/or pregnant women are eligible for placement in state emergency shelters.
  • Emergency Assistance services are funded by the state.
  • The Massachusetts family homelessness system is called the Emergency Assistance (EA) program and is operated and overseen by the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC).
  • Massachusetts covers the cost of emergency shelter services for eligible families, including eligible costs for education, food assistance, medical care, and other basic needs.
  • Those costs are borne bythe Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and MassHealth, respectively.
  • Many EA families' food costs also are paid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
  • In August 2023, Governor Healey signed the FY24 General Appropriation Budget (GAA), which funded the EA system at $324m.
  • Massachusetts has seen a steady rise in shelter demand.
  • The emergency shelter system has had to expand each month since August 2022 in order to meet increases in need, as the result of factors such as rising housing costs in every region, and new arrivals to the state.
  • Additionally, with an increasingly tight housing market and significant delay in federal work authorizations, more families are experiencing homelessness and fewer are exiting shelter in a timely manner into their own stable, permanent housing.
  • Expanding shelter capacity and permanent housing requires local, state, federal partnership.
  • Non-profit service providers help oversee state-run family shelters for 3,600 families in permanent shelter units statewide.
  • Since late 2022, the Commonwealth has also provided shelter for more than 2,000 families in temporary hotel and new permanent sites.
  • EOHLC is working with local, federal and state partners to help shelter eligible families, including by increasing the HomeBASE benefit.
  • In May 2022, the administration implemented an Incident Command Structure, which includes the Governor’s Office, Administration and Finance, Health and Human Services, Housing and Livable Communities, Public Safety and Security, Labor and Workforce Development, and Education in order to incorporate a cross Cabinet approach to meet growing EA shelter needs.
  • Because of the Right to Shelter Law, Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of unsheltered family homelessness in the country - NO SURPRISE!.
  • Families without a safe place to stay may be deemed eligible for emergency assistance if they meet the following criteria:
  • - Be a resident of Massachusetts, and be living in the U.S. with the knowledge and consent of the Department of Homeland Security.
    - Meet the gross income standards and asset test for Emergency Assistance.
    - Have children under the age of 21, or be pregnant.
  • The reason for homelessness must be one of the following:
  • - No-fault fire, flood, natural disaster, condemnation, or foreclosure.
    - Fleeing domestic violence (current or within past 12 months).
    - No-fault eviction.
    - Child(ren) are exposed to a substantial health and safety risk.
  • The household must have gross monthly income equal to or less than 115% of the Federal Poverty Level adjusted for household size.
  • The household's total countable assets must also not exceed $5,000.
  • For a family of three, for example, they must have a household income under $2,382 per month.
  • The majority of families in the EA system are local Massachusetts families who are experiencing homelessness. However, today over half of new families applying for shelter are new arrivals, which is defined as families without citizenship or a green card who arrived in Massachusetts in the last 30 days.
  • To be eligible for shelter, at least one household member must be a citizen, a green card holder, or be present in the U.S. with the knowledge and consent of the Department of Homeland Security, meaning individuals have made lawful entry into the U.S.
  • There is no minimum or maximum length of stay, and the EA system seeks to rehouse families as quickly as possible.
  • Families exiting the shelter system in 2023 had stayed in shelter an average of 14 months.
  • EOHLC strives to provide local and state officials with as much advance notice as possible when siting an emergency shelter and regularly meets with local partners to coordinate service delivery and address local concerns.
  • As of September 2023, more than 80 municipalities across Massachusetts were hosting homeless families.
  • The use of hotels and motels is required when there are no other available options for immediate placement needs.
  • Using hotels and motels for shelter is a last resort, interim solution to providing emergency shelter.
  • Typically, congregate emergency shelters have a 24/7 on-site service provider that coordinates families’ access to food and other necessities and arranges building security, routine cleaning and maintenance, case management, connections to resources, housing search assistance and the coordination of direct care.
  • It is preferable to have to have on-site service providers at all shelter sites. But because of the growing numbers that have outpaced existing EA infrastructure, the state has created “Supplemental Shelters” which do not have a designated service provider, and are instead supported by limited state staff and, in some cases, the Massachusetts National Guard.
  • Schools receive emergency aid for transportation, enrollment, and other extra costs for educating EA students at a daily rate of $104 per student.
  • Service providers and the Massachusetts DESE work with impacted school districts to ensure that the educational needs of any school-aged child living in an emergency shelter are met as quickly as possible, consistent with the McKinney-Vento Act requirements under federal law.
  • Early in 2024, MA Governor Healey signed a supplemental budget that allows school districts to receive emergency aid more quickly for costs associated with educating children placed in new shelters. Otherwise, the districts would have had to wait much longer for funding.
  • The state supposedly works to ensure that no person or family currently living in a hotel or motel is displaced as a result of efforts to shelter families in need.
  • School districts are able to apply for DESE’s Emergency Support Grant for students placed in new emergency shelters.
  • Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, homeless children are guaranteed access to school in either their host community or home community, where feasible, based on what is best for the child.
  • Every school district across the state has a homeless liaison who ensures that children who are homeless have access to a public-school education.
  • Liaisons facilitate enrollment, ensure students are connected to appropriate educational and support services including free school meals, and refer families to community services.
  • DESE is pursuing all other options for funding for districts.
  • In sites with dedicated service providers, those providers identify and partner with vendors to either provide food service if families do not have access to cooking facilities or aid them in securing groceries – often leveraging benefits like SNAP – if they do have access to kitchens/kitchenettes.
  • In some situations, at Supplemental Shelter sites, arrangements are made with hotel staff or local community-based organizations to provide meals prepared off-site to family shelter residents. cess to cooking facilities or aid them in securing groceries – often leveraging benefits like SNAP – if they do have access to kitchens/kitchenettes.
  • In some communities, service providers partner with local restaurants to provide meals for families, acess to cooking facilities or aid them in securing groceries – often leveraging benefits like SNAP – if they do have access to kitchens/kitchenettes.
  • EOHLC provides free over-the-phone language translation services while service providers seek to hire – and many have already - multilingual onsite staff.
  • In May 2023, the Healey-Driscoll Administration awarded $1.75 million to implement Immigrant Assistance Services (IAS), a new program designed to assist newly arrived immigrants with work authorizations and services.
  • IAS is a collaborative program between EOHLC and the Office of Refugees and Immigrants (ORI), administered by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA).
  • The FY24 GAA allocated $325 million for the EA program, which funded 4,700 shelter units (a 31 percent increase over FY23 capacity, depending on final per-unit costs).
  • Early in 2024, Governor Healey signed a supplemental budget proposal to provide additional support for schools absorbing new students and new funding to expand the shelter system.
  • If appropriated as expected, the $250 M supplemental budget filed on 13 September 2023, would provide:
  • - $130 M for direct shelter and associated services for the remainder of FY24 to support the current caseload of approximately 2,300 additional families (~6,400 families currently in shelter – 4,100 families funded in the FY24 budget).
    - $33 M for Temporary Emergency Shelters at Joint Base Cape Cod and Eastern Nazarene.
    - $87 M for other wraparound services and community supports, namely reimbursements to school districts accepting additional students and Family Welcome Centers at Eastern Nazarene and the Brazilian Worker Center.
  • The state is paying all local occupancy taxes for room rentals less than 90 days.
  • The room tax is either paid directly by the state or it is factored into the contract the state has with EA service providers who then pay hotels.
  • The state is using a relatively small percentage of hotels for shelter. It is estimated that only 3% of Massachusetts hotel rooms are being used for shelter.
  • The EA program line item was expected to be depleted in January 2024. If the supplemental budget were supported, that would fund the current caseload through the end of the 2024 fiscal year.
  • The supplemental budget the Administration filed in April 2024 supported a caseload through the end of the 2024 fiscal year (30 June 2024).
  • The $250 million supplemental funding request will only fund the predicted caseload expected through the end of September 2024, approximately 6,600 families.
  • [Ref. 2]
     This is a lonely time for people who serve homeless adults. Just about everybody is focused on the family shelter system, bursting at the seams in part because of a surge of migrants over the southern border. The more than 7,500 families housed in shelters and converted hotels under the state’s “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law have dominated policy discussions, and are taking up an increasing chunk of the state’s finances, with the cost of giving them refuge expected to approach $1 billion this year (2024).
     But the individual shelter system is in crisis too. It is also seeing alarming spikes in folks needing somewhere to eat and sleep. And providers are trying to offer care with funding that doesn’t come close to the need arriving on their doorsteps every day.
     In early 2024 at the Lifebridge homeless shelter in Salem, MA, a few aid recipients were crowded into a small office because the conference room was crammed full of cots. There were more cots along the walls by the dining room, where tables were cleared later in the week to accommodate yet more overnight guests. Half of the shelter’s thrift store had just been converted into sleeping space for some of the folks who lived in a tent encampment behind a Wendy’s on the South River, the awful weather coaxing even those reluctant settlers indoors.
     It used to be that Lifebridge sheltered 40 to 50 people here on any given night, in a large dormitory in the basement where double bunks are lined up neatly and guests store their belongings in big plastic boxes. On one night, the nonprofit gave shelter to 100 people, a number not seen in many years, if ever.
     Other adult shelters all over the state are feeling it, too. Pine Street Inn in Boston, which has beds for 483 people across its four facilities, is straining to accommodate an extra 163 people per night. There, too, cots and mats are being crammed into every available space, including in the lobby.
     The migrant crisis and the the “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law are both part of the surge there, with recent arrivals to Massachusetts making up close to 50 percent of guests at the men’s inn.[Ref. 3]

     If you’re a tourist family coming to Massachusetts this summer, you’d better check your hotel reservation. At the rate the illegal immigration hotel/motel takeover is going, tourists could end up sleeping in their cars. And it would not be the first time that hotels and motels have canceled reservations or kicked people out to make way for illegal immigrants. It has happened in Lowell and Foxboro and is happening elsewhere.
     As of April 2024, some 76 hotels and motels across the state were packed — at top rates — with homeless illegal immigrant families and pregnant women, and more coming. And why not? The 3,900 immigrant families lodged in the hotels and motels, and elsewhere, are provided with free services that the average taxpaying Massachusetts resident can only dream of getting. This does not include thousands more living in shelters.
     The services for the lucky ones living in hotels and motels include free food, free lodging, free health and medical care, free transportation, free security, free schooling and supplies, free clothes, free phones, free internet, and free wifi.
     Not a joke! As Joe Biden, the man responsible for the illegal immigration invasion of the country, would say. “This is not a joke!” Others would say it is a joke.
     Only the joke is on the Massachusetts taxpayers, who are now facing cuts in services and tax hikes while paying billions for the feeding and housing of thousands of illegal immigrants, many of whom are attracted to the state because of its generous welfare policies.
     Tourism in Massachusetts has been a big business. Some 23 million domestic and international tourists visited Massachusetts in 2022. They accounted for $24.2 billion in direct spending, which generated almost $2 billion in state and local taxes, including hotel/motel room taxes. Those visitors supported some 131,000 jobs and almost $6 billion in wages.
     That was before the immigrant invasion explosion took place when Joe Biden let the world know that the southern border was wide open to anyone from anywhere looking for a free lunch.
     Neither Governor Maura Healey nor state officials have any idea how to stem the flow of immigrants, short of insisting that Biden close the border, which he will not do. Nor will he provide Massachusetts with federal funds to deal with the situation despite repeated and ineffective requests from fellow Democrats like Healey, Sens. Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren, or any other members of the state’s delegation to Congress.
     State Senator Michael Rodrigues, the Chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, hit the nail on the head when he said, “The crisis was created by the federal government. We’re holding the bag on the issue.”
     Nobody wants to see illegal immigrant families living in the street. And no politician, outside of Donald Trump, is bold enough to propose sending them back to the countries they came from. Hence, they will keep on coming as long as they can. Here in Massachusetts, our political leaders will not even enforce the so-called “RIGHT TO SHELTER" law the way it was written forty years ago.
     The “RIGHT TO SHELTER”law is being intentionally misinterpreted by our politicians. It was a law passed to deal with the homelessness of Massachusetts residents, not the residents of countries from around the world. Back when the law was enacted, the border was relatively secure and there was no illegal immigrant invasion.
     The law, Chapter 450 of the Acts of 1983, provides assistance for Massachusetts families facing loss of housing through eviction, unpaid rent, utility shutoffs, unpaid heating bills, and so on. There is no mention of immigrants, legal or otherwise.
     In fact, it states “that any such person who enters the Commonwealth solely for the purpose of obtaining benefits under this chapter shall not be considered a resident.” That’s the law.[Ref. 4]

     Massachusetts residents are up in arms over the effect that unique state law, the “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law has had on the burgeoning migrant crisis there. The law has reportedly turned Massachusetts into a beacon for those flooding across the Mexican border thousands of miles away.
     In Massachusetts, anyone who steps foot here - whether for 20 years or for 20 minutes - receives generous taxpayer funded benefits. And one of them is called a right-to-shelter. What the law means is that the taxpayers are mandated to pay for your shelter.
     That fact has led to the migrant influx "exploding". For example, illegal immigrants who were formerly housed at Logan International Airport were moved to a recreation center in Boston's Roxbury section – to the chagrin of local residents. "We are becoming a destination for migrants," said one Roxbury resident. "And as a result, our shelter system; our welfare system is stretched beyond thin. And it's becoming pretty much a disaster." He further stated that the state government had announced it was spending about $1 billion per year on the migrant crisis alone, in part due to the law.
     Another local Roxbury resident condemned the use of the neighborhood recreation center as a migrant shelter for those being moved from Logan Airport, saying that the largely minority local community has requested proper resources and upgrades to public property, but has only seen action on behalf of the migrants.
     Since its passage in 1983 as a high-profile campaign promise of then-Gov. Michael Dukakis, Massachusetts' “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law remains the only such legislation at the state level in the country.[Ref.5]

     With respect to the influx of migrants to Massachusetts and its “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law, let’s reiterate that the state does not have to amend or repeal the law. All that needs to be done is to enforce it!
     The law as written, and passed forty years ago, was never intended to house and feed the explosion of migrants from around the world storming into Massachusetts. It was passed and signed into law in 1983 to deal with the relatively small number of homeless families and pregnant women who were residents of Massachusetts, not residents of other states or countries.
     But the law has not been interpreted or enforced the way it was written. Instead, progressives have proudly waved it as a banner of compassion and an invitation to migrants from around the world to come to Massachusetts where they will be cared for at the expense of the citizens of the Bay State.
     The word has gotten out that Massachusetts is a soft touch. mostly illegal immigrants came, and are coming, to the point that the governor had to call a state of emergency and bring out the National Guard to help deal with the influx of all the foreigners making their way to Massachusetts.
     The situation got so bad and so costly, that the state announced it could no longer guarantee shelter nor housing for any more arrivals. There was no mention of the social impact the immigrants have had on the communities where they were being housed in motels, or what would happen to immigrants who keep coming.
     At the time of the announcement, there were some 7,023 immigrant families in the state’s shelter/welfare system, or some 23,000 people. Of that number, 3,300 families were living in motels and hotels and the rest were in shelters.
     Massachusetts doesn’t have to end the shelter law - it just needs to enforce the way it was written to cover homeless Massachusetts residents, not outsiders. The law does not apply to illegal immigrant coming to Massachusetts from countries around the world. It is a good move, but probably a futile one, to keep asking President Biden for financial aid to deal with the immigration problem. This is a federal problem that demands a federal solution. But for Biden, to come up with billions in federal money for Massachusetts and other states burdened with illegal immigrants, is to admit he created the problem in the first place by opening the borders and allowing people in who do not belong here. We all would be better off if Biden shut down the border.[Ref. 6]

     As a new migrant shelter was set to open in Boston's Fort Point neighborhood, House Democrats voted early in March 2024 to steer another $245 million toward the overwhelmed emergency family shelter system while capping how long people could receive its services. At the same time, the Democrats rejected a Republican proposal to limit program eligibility.
     The funding bill featured a new approach to how Massachusetts administers emergency family shelters, more than a year after demand for services began to spike amid an increase in new migrant arrivals and four months after Gov. Maura Healey capped the maximum number of families in the system.
     The Healey administration projected shelter costs would pass $900 million in fiscal years 2024 and 2025. House Democrats were growing more aware of difficult budget choices and now say they needed to make changes to keep the system afloat. Without making some changes to the program, it'll collapse under its own weight.
     While Massachusetts is staggering under the financial burden of the “RIGHT TO SHELTER” LAW, the state is in the midst of the longest period of below-projected monthly tax revenue collections in at least 20 years.
     Assuming the Senate and the governor agree with the House's proposed $245 million appropriation, the total appropriation to March for emergency family shelters would rise to $820 million, more than four times as much as the state made available for the system in fiscal year 2021.
     Early in March, the Healey administration projected it would spend $932 million on shelters in the fiscal year, so it's not clear if Massachusetts will need another funding injection before the budget cycle ends.
     In mid-April 2024, attention had shifted to the state Senate, where top Democrats had not given a clear indication of whether they supported limiting how long families could stay in shelters.[Ref. 7]

     The Massachusetts “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law is so generous that it caught the attention of the news media in England. Early in 2024, the Britsh Daily Mail reported the high and rising public cost of sheltering migrants in Massachusetts, as the state grappled with a strain on its emergency shelter system.
     At the time, the state had 17 contracts totaling $116 million to house migrant families through June of 2024, including a six-month no-bid $10 million contract to Spinelli Ravioli Manufacturing Company in East Boston to provide meals.
     In some cases, the state was paying hotels $64 per person each day for meals, including $16 for breakfast, $17 for lunch and $31 for dinner. Officials had not explained why the price of meals was so high.
     The previous year in August, Massachusetts Governor Maura T. Healey had declared a state of emergency, saying the state had more than 20,000 migrants in its shelter system. Capacity overruns had necessitated the use of hotels for emergency shelter, but in March 2024 the state had to open a new temporary facility with 400 beds in Boston's Melnea Cass Recreational Center in the Roxbury section of Boston. This followed reports that migrants were being forced to sleep on cots at Logan Airport, underscoring the humanitarian crisis and strain on the state's resources.[Ref. 8]

     To alleviate the heavy burden imposed upon Massachusetts by the state’s current “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law, Congress should enact a federal “RIGHT TO SHELTER” law. This would make shelter laws uniform throughout the United States. It would eliminate the incentive to immigrants to flock to the Bay State which currently has the most liberal shelter benefits of any state. It would also place the funding requirement upon the federal government instead of it resting entirely upon the shoulders of the taxpayers of Massachusetts.
  1. 7 things to know about Mass. ‘right-to-shelter’ as budget vote looms, Luis Fieldman, www.masslive.com,
    14 November 2023.
  2. Massachusetts is a “RIGHT TO SHELTER” State, Nomer Caceres, News, policy, 23 April 2023.
  3. There’s another shelter crisis happening in Massachusetts, Yvonne Abraham, The Boston Globe, 6 April 2024.
  4. Plenty of room at the Hotel Massachusetts, Peter Lucas, Boston Herald, 13 April 2024.
  5. Massachusetts resident condemns right-to-shelter law turning Bay State into 'destination for migrants', Charles Creitz, www.msn.com, Accessed 15 April 2024.
  6. ‘Right to shelter’ not meant for migrants, Peter Lucas, Boston Herald, 16 April 2024.
  7. Mass. House agrees to $245M more for shelters, Oscar Margain and Chris Lisinski, www.nbcboston.com, 6 March 2024.
  8. Boston's migrant shelter luxury: State pays $16 for breakfast, $17 for lunch and $31 for dinner as they live in hotels for free after entering the US illegally, www.dailymail.co.uk, 8 March 2024.


  9 May 2024 {ARTICLE 622; UNDECIDED_86}    
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