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What do you mean by ‘right to shelter,’ Governor Healey?

It would be better and more honest if Healey just said she wanted to change the law and forced state lawmakers to consider that.

At the Massachusetts State House on Oct. 16, Governor Maura Healey provided an update on the state’s emergency family shelter system.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

When it comes to the state’s right-to-shelter law, it really is a new era — thanks to Governor Maura Healey and a judge who gave her clearance to limit emergency housing for families and pregnant women.

This week, as Michael Dukakis turns 90, the law he championed as governor 40 years ago is under attack. When he signed it, the underlying mission — to provide emergency housing for all families with children, along with pregnant women who needed it — was taken to heart as a political obligation unique to Massachusetts and a moral one. When state officials fell short, they were still motivated to try to meet the letter and spirit of the law. That changed with Healey’s effort to cap how many families qualify for emergency housing and a ruling on Wednesday by Judge Debra A. Squires-Lee to reject a request from Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based advocacy group, to block Healey from doing that.


A spokesperson for Healey said the governor is “not altering the right-to-shelter law and will continue to place eligible families into shelter as units become available.” But practically speaking, Healey has proclaimed there are limits to the state’s largesse, while trying to be humane about it by setting up a triage system to prioritize those who are most in need.

It would be better and more honest if Healey just said she wanted to change the law and forced state lawmakers to consider that. Instead, she insists she supports the law but just can’t come up with the money or space for all the people who need shelter. Under her proposal, after the state takes care of 7,500 families, the no vacancy sign will flash in Massachusetts shelters.

From a political perspective, this makes sense for a Democrat like Healey who wants to appeal to the same independent voters as her Republican predecessor, Charlie Baker. But from a moral perspective, let’s call it for what it is: a requiem for a certain way of thinking about the role of government when it comes to helping those most in need, no matter who they are and where they come from.


In modern politics, that way of thinking had its origins in the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal social programs that were designed to get people past the economic hardships of the Great Depression. But as James Roosevelt Jr., a Massachusetts lawyer and the grandson of FDR points out, “there was lots of debate even 90 years ago about how do we pay for it.” Once those safety net programs were put in place, however, they guided the priorities of Democrats at every level of government.

Today the price tag for helping the most vulnerable gets great scrutiny, even in a blue state like Massachusetts. This is especially true when it comes to migrants, who have been successfully demonized by Republican governors like Greg Abbot of Texas, who also bused migrants to cities like New York and Washington, D.C., to see how local officials would react to the influx.

The answer: despite the best of intentions and efforts to mobilize help, not well. The surge of migrants who ended up in Massachusetts has led to complaints from Democrats, including Healey, about the lack of federal help in dealing with it, along with questions about the Biden administration’s border security policy or lack thereof. The complaints, while legitimate, still represent a willingness to pass the buck when it comes to any political or moral obligation to those migrants who end up here.


The waiting list Healey wants to implement also puts Massachusetts families at risk. As Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, put it, no one has yet to say what will happen to the people on any waiting list. Some, she fears, will end up on the streets. Or, as the ACLU wrote in an amicus brief as part of a lawsuit to stop the Healey administration from moving forward on its cap on families seeking shelter: “The administration’s proposal, if allowed to proceed, would leave it with unfettered discretion to determine which desperate families will or will not obtain shelter, without any input from the Legislature or the public, and leave affected families in the dark about their legal rights and, quite literally, out in the cold.”

Why not put it directly on the Legislature to confront the obligations of the right-to-shelter law? “It’s wonderful that we have it,” Roosevelt said. “But we have to figure out how practically to meet its needs.” Like Healey, he, too, believes the federal government should do more. But, he said, “Every state should be doing its part and not just abandoning people who need shelter.”

That’s the debate Healey should be forcing Massachusetts to have — whether it wants to be different or just like everyone else.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @joan_vennochi.