Massachusetts judge rejects attempt to halt emergency shelter cap, handing win to Maura Healey

A Suffolk County judge rejected Wednesday an attempt to halt a plan to cap the number of local and migrant homeless families in emergency shelters, handing a win to Gov. Maura Healey, whose administration was sued last week by a Boston-based legal group.

The ruling sides with the state’s housing department, which argued through lawyers Tuesday that it had no more funds — and is on track to run into the red — to continue expanding shelter capacity in the face of surging demand partly fueled by the number of migrant arrivals this year and suffocating housing costs.

Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Debra Squires-Lee handed down her ruling a day after the Healey administration issued emergency regulations that call for a waitlist once capacity is reached and potentially limit the amount of time families can stay in shelters.

In her ruling, Squires-Lee said the Healey administration did not violate a provision included in the state’s fiscal 2024 budget that calls for a 90-day notice to the Legislature before making any changes to emergency shelter eligibility requirements.

The notice, Squires-Lee wrote in court documents, is intended to afford the Legislature the opportunity to appropriate funding for the shelter program.

“The evidence before me, however, is clear — more than a month ago, the governor specifically requested additional appropriations for the emergency assistance program and the Legislature has failed to act,” the judge wrote. “In these circumstances, the predicate purpose of the 90-day proviso has been fulfilled; and, in all events, it is for the Legislature and not clients of the program to enforce any claimed non-compliance.”

The ruling all but guarantees uncertainty for families who apply for emergency shelter after the 7,500-family shelter cap is reached, something the administration has said could happen within days. There were 7,388 families in the system as of Tuesday, according to state data.

Lawyers for Civil Rights, the group behind the lawsuit, laid out a grim picture of what would happen if a temporary pause on the capacity plan was not put in place — migrants and homeless families could end up sleeping outside as cold weather sets in.

“Without an injunction, families, children, and pregnant women who are entitled to emergency shelter under the law will be denied a roof over their heads — forced to sleep on the streets, in cars, and in other unsafe situations. There is no other way to put it. That is the grim reality,” Attorney Oren Sellstrom wrote in court documents. “The harms that will befall them are harsh and irreparable.”

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities said the department believes “an appropriate outcome was reached.”

“The state does not have enough space, service providers or funding to safely expand shelter capacity,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Attorneys on both sides of the issue spent much of the court hearing Tuesday focused on the 90-day requirement, which says the executive branch must provide notice to the Legislature  that they are making any regulatory, administrative practice, or policy changes that would “alter the eligibility” of emergency shelter benefits.

Sellstrom said emergency regulations partially outlining what happens when the shelter cap is reached were “rushed” at the eleventh hour only after the Healey administration was sued to challenge their compliance.

“Defendants are rushing drastic and material changes to the state’s long standing emergency assistance program into place, disregarding well-established laws that require an orderly process — in particular, a mandate that requires defendants to give the Legislature a 90-day period to weigh in and potentially forestall the changes altogether,” Sellstrom wrote in court documents.

But Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office argued that provision “is not privately enforceable” into a 90-day delay of emergency measures to address budget shortfalls.

Squires-Lee sided with state lawyers, writing in her ruling that Lawyers for Civil Rights provided “no case in which a court has ever held that an agency that fails to comply with such a proviso may be barred from taking action within the ambit of its statutory and regulatory authority.”

Healey has requested additional funding for emergency shelters beyond the $325 million allocated to the program in the fiscal 2024 state budget. In a separate bill closing out the books on fiscal 2023, Healey asked lawmakers to approve $250 million in additional funding.

Squires-Lee points to that request in her ruling, and notes the Legislature has not moved forward the extra dollars.

“The failure to give notice has not injured plaintiffs where notice is intended to permit the Legislature to act or not act, and the Legislature, having actual notice of the fiscal crisis, has failed to act,” Squires-Lee wrote.

Squires-Lee also agreed with a state-backed argument that she does not have the power to force the Healey administration to spend money the Legislature has not appropriated.

“As much as I wish that I possessed the power to ensure that all families who need housing have it, and that all families who require safe emergency shelter are given it, I am persuaded that it would be inappropriate to order EOHLC to continue providing emergency shelter it does not have the resources appropriated by the Legislature to fund,” the judge wrote.

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