Proposed cap on shelters raises thorny issues
Fritz, 17, was reflected in a TV screen in a hotel room in Boston, where he was staying with his family, one of 10 Haitian families who were living at the hotel in May.
By Samantha J. Gross and Matt Stout, Globe Staff

As the state’s emergency shelter system inched toward its self-imposed capacity Monday, uncertainty pervaded the state’s plan to cap how many homeless and migrant families it’s sheltering, with homeless advocates urging the Healey administration to delay and a judge readying to hear a legal challenge to it.

The ballooning crisis — and the unprecedented steps Governor Maura Healey is taking to control it — has raised numerous questions, perhaps none more urgent than how the new limit could affect newly arrived immigrants and other homeless families with no other place to go.

State officials said they plan to begin pushing those seeking shelter to a waiting list once the system reaches 7,500 families, which they warn could happen “imminently.’’ As of Monday, there were 7,332 families in the system, half of whom were in state-subsidized hotels or motels.

“We encourage the Healey administration to put the brakes on the creation of a waiting list while additional details of how such a waiting list would work remain to be hashed out,’’ said Kelly Turley of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

“We want to make sure the Legislature has time to provide the funding that’s needed to avoid a need for the waiting list,’’ she said.

The fate of homeless families is far from the only unknown. A Boston-based advocacy group is suing the state to halt the self-imposed limit on the number of families in the shelter system; a judge will hear their arguments at an emergency hearing Tuesday afternoon. Healey is also still seeking hundreds of millions of dollars from the state Legislature to keep the system operating amid a crisis that has no definitive end in sight.

Behind the scenes, the state has sketched out some of its plans for what Healey has called “a new phase to this challenge.’’

Officials intend to create another layer of screening for those applying for emergency shelter, in which health care providers will perform a “medical assessment’’ of families to determine who will be given priority for shelter, according to a copy of the presentation that officials provided to advocacy groups.

Families with infants under 9 months and pregnant women in their third trimester will be among those prioritized for shelter, while those with medication that needs to be refrigerated could also move up in line, according to Turley, who was among those briefed by state officials last week.

Those who are effectively screened out will then land on the new waiting list, though it’s unclear how long they could idle there.

Two family welcome centers in Allston and Quincy, which were created to connect newly arrived migrants with services, will now shift in part to serve those not placed in shelters, according to state officials. Those on the waiting list will also be directed to call the state’s 2-1-1 hot line, a 24-hour system that gives people information about food banks or other basic services.

Until recently, homeless families were guaranteed a roof over their heads under a decades-old law in Massachusetts, the only state in the country with a so-called right-to-shelter requirement. But now, state officials say they can no longer guarantee space for more than 7,500 families.

At the current pace, state officials predict that without changes, roughly 9,700 families could be in the system by January and nearly 13,500 by the end of the fiscal year in June, according to projections shared with advocacy groups.

State officials say they plan to work with families as shelter capacity is reached.

“We are committed to ensuring that families know about resources available to them,’’ said L. Scott Rice, the retired lieutenant general whom Healey recently tapped to lead the statewide response as emergency assistance director.

Even with some new details, it remains unclear what will happen to families for whom there is no room. The state said Monday that when a unit opens up for a family on the waitlist, they will be contacted by phone, email, or text.

But migrant and homeless families are often transient, and advocates fear they could be hard to reach.

Space is already at a premium in a region choked by high housing costs. For example, the Pine Street Inn, New England’s largest provider of homelessness services, expects to reach capacity as temperatures dip.

“We are not equipped or set up to accommodate families [or] children,’’ said Barbara Trevisan, a spokesperson.

There are other concerns. If families seeking shelter must now be seen by a physician — who under state law is required to report suspected child neglect — some advocates question whether that could open migrant families to a Department of Children and Families investigation at one of their most vulnerable points.

“A lot of families applying for shelter are already very afraid. They know they and their children are in a very vulnerable circumstance, and they have a lot of fear of triggering a child welfare investigation,’’ said Laura Massie, a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. “We are concerned it could really make parents too afraid to come forward and say they need help and support.’’

In an email sent to some nurses at Boston Medical Center, two nursing directors wrote to employees to say they were “in shock’’ to hear that the state would no longer guarantee shelter for eligible families. The number of families arriving at the hospital’s emergency room has sharply increased in the last year. Some show up in need of medical attention, but many arrive seeking shelter because other options are full.

“This is a tremendous crisis,’’ one nursing director wrote in an email shared with the Globe.

Jeffrey Thielman, president of the International Institute of New England, said his organization is “concerned we’re going to have a flood of people coming to our office.’’

“We’re not sure what the plan is going to be on Nov. 1. We’re hoping there is some plan,’’ said Thielman, whose organization has worked to resettle more than 6,000 migrants from Haiti.

This fear is shared by Rachel Heller, an affordable housing advocate and CEO of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association.

Her organization recently penned an open letter alongside the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute expressing their concern that Healey’s plan “may result in children and families being unable to access shelter when it is needed the most.’’

“I am very worried; I really am,’’ Heller said.

Healey has twice written to the Biden administration, imploring officials to quickly grant work permits to the thousands of migrants who have overwhelmed the state’s shelter system and to send money to help the state provide necessary resources such as housing and transportation.

Her administration has also asked the Legislature to provide up to $250 million more of state money, estimating that with an “unlimited rate of shelter expansion,’’ the state would exhaust the $325 million allocated for the system by mid-January — just halfway through the budget cycle. By capping the number of families in the system, state officials believe that money could last “several more months,’’ though exactly how long is unclear.

But so far, no money has come. And it’s difficult to count on Congress, which has struggled to address immigration for years.

In defending her decision to limit families in the system, Healey’s office argued that not only was the right-to-shelter law passed during a different era, but the current statute makes it “subject to appropriation’’ — in other words, the state is required to follow it only as long as it has enough funding.

House speaker Ron Mariano said the House is evaluating the need for additional funding, but asserted in a statement that “temporary policy changes would be better addressed by the [Healey] administration’’ through an executive order.

Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross Follow her @samanthajgross. Matt Stout can be reached at