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Massachusetts debates how long homeless people can stay in shelters

BOSTON (AP) — A proposal that would limit how long homeless people can stay in emergency state shelters was approved by Massachusetts House lawmakers Wednesday as the system strains under an influx of migrants.

Under the bill, which passed on 121-33 vote and now heads to the Senate, the state would limit the maximum stay to nine months with an additional three months for those who are employed or enrolled in a job training program.

Pregnant women and people with disabilities, among other conditions, would be eligible for 12 consecutive months regardless of their employment status.

The bill states that its goal is to help families successfully exit the program and enter the workforce, while at the same time opening space for families who have been waitlisted as a result of the emergency regulations issued by Gov. Maura Healey last year.

Those regulations set a cap of 7,500 families participating in the emergency shelter program. As of Wednesday, about 700 families were waiting to be enrolled in the program — a number that is expected to continue to grow. The bill would set aside an additional $245 million through the end of the fiscal year to help provide the additional shelter help.

Massachusetts isn't alone in grappling with ways to limit the amount of time homeless people can stay in shelters.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson announced in January that he city will again extend its 60-day limit on shelter stays for asylum-seekers just days ahead of a deadline that could have evicted nearly 2,000 migrants.

Other U.S. cities, including New York and Denver, have put shelter limits in place as they struggle to house and care for the growing population of migrants arriving by bus and plane.

Backers of the bill in Massachusetts said the state needs to step up because the federal government won't.

“It has become crystal clear that the federal government will provide no relief for states like ours who are facing this emergency all over the country,” said Democratic Rep. Aaron Michlewitz. “Without making some temporary changes to this program it will collapse under its own weight.”

In November, the state House approved an additional $250 million for the program and required the Healey administration to identify state-funded overflow emergency shelter sites for families on the waitlist.

Wednesday's bill would require those overflow sites to be open daily until at least 9 a.m. and for future overflow sites to be operational 24 hours a day and located in diverse geographic areas.

Republicans said the bill gives the illusion of taking action while failing to address the underlying issue.

Republican state Sen. Peter Durant said the legislation is lacking and doesn't tackle the cause behind the crisis.

“Once the nine months are up for a migrant and they leave the program, without addressing the ongoing influx, a new migrant will simply fill that spot,” he said. “Not to mention the potential volatile situation that could be created if the state starts actively evicting families from hotel rooms.”

Republican lawmakers also pushed for an amendment that would have created a six-month residency requirement for eligibility in the right to shelter program. The amendment was rejected.

The United Way of Massachusetts Bay, a charitable organization, announced last week the opening of another new temporary overnight emergency shelter located in Boston’s Seaport District. The shelter will accommodate about 25 families and their children, officials said.