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Charlie Baker pushing ahead with migrant response plans

Spending request in House as administration manages migrant influx

The sign at the West Main Street entrance to Devens. (Julia Malakie/Lowell Sun)
The sign at the West Main Street entrance to Devens. (Julia Malakie/Lowell Sun)
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The Baker administration “just can’t wait” for lawmakers to take up a spending bill and will instead tap into already-available funds to help manage a ballooning emergency shelter crisis, a top official said Tuesday.

Top Democrats have not outlined plans for acting on the $139 million supplemental budget Gov. Charlie Baker filed Nov. 18, which he said would deploy key resources to respond to a “humanitarian crisis” fueled in part by an influx of migrants arriving in Massachusetts.

While the administration will ultimately need legislative authorization, Administration and Finance Undersecretary Catharine Hornby said the executive branch will use some available funds to kickstart its response, including the launch of an intake center in Devens and an expansion of emergency shelter capacity.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that we just can’t wait, that we’re going to need to figure this out,” Hornby said at a Local Government Advisory Commission meeting. “There are certain things that we’re going to just do. But when it comes to schools, we don’t have the authorization. We need this bill to proceed through the Legislature.”

“So we have a proposal. There are some parts of it that we absolutely just have to do what we need to do, and there are other parts where we hope to do so in partnership with the Legislature and can’t do it without them,” Hornby added.

The budget Baker filed more than two weeks ago would steer $130 million toward the “crisis” he described, with $73 million going to expanding the shelter system’s capacity, $20 million for the temporary intake center, and $37 million to help manage the costs of placing new students in schools.

In a brief interview after the LGAC meeting, Hornby said the administration still needs lawmakers to approve the entire package of proposed spending to fully manage the situation. But officials are hopeful to make at least some progress in the meantime using a $20 million allocation for immigrant and refugee needs included in the economic development bill Baker signed last month.

“The Legislature has already made $20 million available, so we’re prioritizing, within that, the intake center, setting up this intake center, and additionally expanding shelter capacity to meet immediate needs,” Hornby said. “By contrast, the additional funding for schools is something that we don’t have the authority to move forward with. We still are looking for the full amount, the full $130 million, because it’s one thing to say we’re going to do what we need to do today, but long-term, obviously, these needs are pressing and we need the Legislature’s help in addressing them.”

Officials have not said how long they will be able to run the Devens intake center without action on the $139 million budget bill.

The Baker administration on Tuesday said the state will need additional money sought in the supplemental budget to meet current and projected increased demand for shelters, but did not provide specifics on how long current funding levels can last.

“To meet increased housing and shelter needs driven in part by federal immigration policy, the Baker-Polito Administration last month filed a $139 million supplemental budget, which would build on $20 million provided in legislation recently signed by Governor Baker to support the needs of immigrants and refugees,” said Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development spokesperson Kelsey Schiller in a statement. “The Administration is planning to stand up the Devens Intake Center this month and the Governor’s supplemental budget will fund a variety of needs related to these challenges going forward.”

Local and state policymakers are facing pressure amid a sustained burst of migrant arrivals, many of whom require shelter and other support services. Community groups have witnessed a surge in needs for housing and legal services among new arrivals, prompting a backlog of cases in immigration court and further straining the region’s notorious housing market.

The spending bill remains pending before the House Ways and Means Committee. House leaders have not said whether they support the measure or when they plan to advance it for debate.

Department of Housing and Community Development Undersecretary Jennifer Maddox said Tuesday that hundreds more families entered the emergency shelter system between July and November this year than in all of 2021.

She called the funding in the proposed budget bill “vital” to the state’s response because “we know the increased demand for shelter is not going to abate any time soon.”

“The reality is that Massachusetts is seeing an influx of new residents and we are seeing a lot more households that are doubled up in situations that are unsafe, and they’re in need of immediate assistance,” Maddox said. “When I mean immediate, I mean they have no alternative feasible housing that night, so we are required to provide them with shelter.”

Maddox said the administration has succeeded over the past eight years at reducing the number of homeless families living in hotels from more than 1,500 to just 10, but officials are now “facing a new challenge that needs new resources.”

The state will use the Bob Eisengrein Community Center in Devens as a temporary intake center, planning to host up to 60 families or 125 individuals at a time during their first few days in shelter and connect them to case management resources.

Officials announced on Nov. 22 that the facility would open in “early December,” though as of Tuesday it had not yet launched, and remain open for at least four months.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito likened the planned Devens facility to the role that Joint Base Cape Cod played this fall when about 50 Venezuelan asylum-seekers appeared on Martha’s Vineyard after being flown there by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“This is a difficult set of circumstances because it’s uncertain. It’s not as if you get a call and say, ’30 days from now, we are going to get x number of people and this is the configuration — families, older adults, different needs,’” Polito said at the LGAC meeting. “There’s really not a lot of notice, so what we’re trying to do is set up a system.”