Major changes may be on the horizon for the Massachusetts family shelter system. The parties in a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of homeless families have agreed to a settlement with the state. A judge is considering whether to approve the deal.
The agreement could revamp a state-run system that has struggled to keep up with a growing number of homeless families.
Some families have described waiting on hold on the state’s emergency shelter hotline for hours, day after day, to file an application for shelter. Other homeless families told WBUR they have returned to abusive situations or turned to emergency rooms for a place to stay as they apply to the state system.
The settlement aims to simplify and streamline the shelter application process. It also creates a more robust system for moving families closer to communities where they have ties through work, school and family, and providing accommodations for people with disabilities.
Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said the proposed settlement is a “game changer.”
“It won't expand access to shelter to unaccompanied youth or adults without children in their households, but for families with children in need of shelter, I think it will make a fundamental difference,” said Turley, whose organization is not part of the lawsuit.
The state-run family shelter system
Massachusetts has one of the only state-run family shelter systems in the country. It currently houses nearly 4,000 families, up more than 30% from the same time last year. Advocates say the increase is due to factors that include high housing costs and more new immigrants coming to the state. This year, legislators committed more than $200 million to fund the system.
The class-action lawsuit, filed in 2016, alleged that delays getting shelter violated a unique state law that guarantees many families a right to shelter. The lawsuit also alleged that the system was not doing enough to accommodate families of people with disabilities, and was not doing enough to transfer families closer to their communities.
For the past few years, lawyers for homeless families and for the state have been working on a settlement, meeting at least weekly to hash out details.
“Some of the things we proposed ... we were like, ‘Well, this is going to be a nonstarter,’ " said Laura Massie, senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services and one of the lawyers representing families in the lawsuit. "And then we were amazed that they were willing to say, ‘Yeah, let's talk about that. Let's find a way to address that.’ "
What the settlement would change
The proposed settlement is more than 100 pages long and includes detailed instructions about what must change to make the system work better for families. The changes fall into three broad categories.
The shelter system’s front door
The settlement seeks to make the system easier to access. This includes provisions for simpler forms, a web portal to submit documents, and a voicemail system so families don’t have to wait on hold and instead receive a call back. Another provision requires families who are denied shelter to be given a written explanation, so the decision can be appealed.
In addition, many families would be given a place to stay while they complete the shelter application.
“There's a guarantee if you make it to the office by such-and-such a time — or call the phone line by such-and-such time — and [the Department of Housing and Community Development] has not determined you to be ineligible, then they'll give you a safe place to stay, at least for that night,” explained Massie. “We were very, very excited about that guarantee.”
Massie’s team also noticed that it’s often hard for families to immediately produce all the documentation they need to get into shelter, such as evidence of limited income and their reason for homelessness. This is one of the roadblocks that can leave families unsheltered. Under the proposed settlement, families would get shelter and have more time — often 30 days — to provide many of the necessary documents.
Keeping families closer to home
Sometimes families are given shelter far from their communities. This can mean they have to commute long distances to work and school, or to see friends and relatives. To address this, the settlement would create a more transparent and robust system to transfer families to shelters closer to the areas where they work and attend school. And, for the first time, families will be routinely asked where they consider home.
Accommodations for people with disabilities
The proposed settlement creates a system for prioritizing the most urgent needs for people with disabilities, and it allows the state to request a new shelter unit to fit a family’s specific needs.
For example, if a premature baby is being discharged into the shelter system and needs to remain near Boston Children’s Hospital, advocates say it would now be easier to make that possible. The state would also be required to keep data on which transfers and accommodations are and aren’t being met to show where new shelter capacity is needed.
People familiar with the shelter system say that, currently, many decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, and having an advocate from a local nonprofit can make a difference. Now, Massie said, the hope is to set up systems that function more smoothly and more equitably for all families in the system.
Who pays the bill?
Under the terms of the settlement, the state is responsible for implementing the changes. So the short answer is: taxpayers. Attorneys who helped craft the settlement said the overhaul may streamline some parts of the system, but overall it will require more staffing, the creation of new systems and protocols, and changes to data collection.
State officials declined to comment on the proposed settlement citing the ongoing litigation. However, Gov. Maura Healey’s budget called for many millions in added funding. Some of that is because of increased demand for shelter services, but many advocates for homeless families have speculated that it might also be with an eye toward implementing the settlement.
What comes next
Before ruling on the settlement, the judge on Tuesday requested a report about outreach related to the settlement. The report is due next week. Lawyers involved in the case said they expect the decision to come soon since the judge is facing mandatory retirement within months.
If it is finalized, implementation of the settlement terms is expected to take more than a year. The settlement will then be binding for three years. But the plaintiffs hope that once the new systems are in place, many of the changes will continue long into the future.
This article was originally published on March 28, 2023.
This segment aired on March 28, 2023.