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Lawmakers demand more transparency into the Massachusetts emergency shelter system

The Alexis family waits in the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan, Massachusetts on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. The family arrived in Boston a week ago and are struggling to find housing after the state capped the number of family shelter spots and created a wait list.
Michael Casey
Associated Press
The Alexis family waits in the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan, Massachusetts on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. The family arrived in Boston a week ago and are struggling to find housing after the state capped the number of family shelter spots and created a wait list.

A spending bill, signed into law last week by Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, includes language requiring more transparency around the state's emergency shelter program.

The language is tied to $250 million in new funding for the shelters.

Colin Young with the State House News Service explains how the provision got there, and what's going on.
Colin Young, State House News Service: So, this, to me, seems like a real direct line from some of the meetings that the administration had back in August with House lawmakers. After those meetings, [SHNS] started hearing from representatives that they simply weren't happy with the plan that the Healey administration was putting forward for the shelter system, and they felt like they didn't have enough information about what was actually happening on the ground. So, this looks like a way for the Legislature to compel that information, so that they can go back to their districts, tell their constituents, their city councilors, their select board members, this is what's happening: Here's the number of families newly enrolled in shelters, here's exactly how the state is responding, and here's how many people are on that wait list that the administration is now running.

And under those provisions, Healey will be reporting out every two weeks. And Healey has appointed [Elizabeth] 'Bessie' Dewar to fill the Supreme Judicial Court seat that Justice Elspeth Cypher is giving up when she retires. So what's been the reaction you've heard to this appointment to the state's highest court? And what's next?

This is a really interesting appointment. For one thing, Bessie Dewar is not already a judge. It is the first time since the year 2000 that a governor has picked someone who is not already a judge to be on the SJC, and so far the reaction has been positive. In particular, I heard from some reproductive rights advocates who pointed out the work that Dewar did as the state's solicitor in writing briefs to oppose Texas's six week abortion ban and working on other cases that involve abortion access and gender affirming care around the country, and they think that she'll bring that same approach, the defense of reproductive freedom, to the SJC, if she's confirmed by the governor's council.

You know, there are some so-called seasons that industries follow. There's road work season in the summer and into the fall, and there's construction season in the spring. Gov. Healey's massive housing bill and new economic development plan she filed last week are now among a stack of bills in the Legislature. Do you get any sense that there's pressure on lawmakers to take up those bills in order to make sure that they're passed before construction season?

It depends on, who or when you ask. Governor Healey was asked last week if the Legislature's glacial pace was an impediment to the things that she's trying to do, like that massive housing bill, and she held her fire, you know, and sort of just said, well, this is the way things go.

And we all understand that there's urgency. But if you catch the governor when she's out around the state doing these sort of campaign-style events to promote her housing bill, there's a line that she goes to repeatedly, which is to call on people to call their state reps and state senators to advocate for this bill. And she says "housing construction starts will either start in the spring or they won't…" sort of suggesting, let's get this done before the spring construction season.

I want you living here in Massachusetts. I want you raising your families in Massachusetts. I want you growing businesses in Massachusetts, right? But that's [only] going to happen if we make life more affordable. And that's why this housing bill is so important. That's why we need your help and advocacy to get it done and get it done quickly. Housing construction starts will start in the spring or not, right? So we've got to get this going and get this going now.
Mass. FGov. Maura Healey at an appearance in Attleboro in October, 2023.

That would be amazing. It would really be out of the ordinary for the Legislature to tackle an issue that big with that many moving parts in it that quickly. To me, this seems like a bill that we will be waiting for on July 31st, the last day of formal sessions. It seems like that kind of thing where it's going to really come right down to the wire.

Boston area water customers may be paying a little bit extra, a few extra pennies for every thousand gallons of water that they use, drawn from the Quabbin Reservoir. A bill co-filed by Western Mass State Senator Jo Comerford and Rep Aaron Saunders provides this, what they call a "dose of equity" for communities around the watershed. What is this all about?

This one is absolutely fascinating. The idea here is to compensate western Mass. towns that protect the Quabbin Reservoir and its watershed for the fact that because they have that responsibility of protecting the water for eastern Mass., they can't develop that land by adding a small surcharge onto the eastern Mass. water customers. It would go back to to towns in western Mass. for all sorts of things — public safety, health, road construction, just basic municipal needs. But it draws on the history, about a hundred years ago, of the eminent domain takings and floodings of four western Mass. towns to build the Quabbin and tries to sort of make up for that, or at least start to make up for that now.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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