Emergency Assistance: Basic shelter rights for families experiencing homelessness

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

What is the Emergency Assistance program?

Emergency Assistance (EA) is a state-run program that provides emergency shelter and rehousing services (HomeBASE) to families with children and pregnant people who are experiencing homelessness.

HomeBASE provides you with money ($30,000 over 24 months) to help with initial moving costs, rent, and other housing costs to help you find or stay in housing. HomeBASE can help you avoid going into shelter, or help you exit shelter into private housing. If you are eligible for EA shelter, you are eligible for HomeBASE. Eligibility and the application process are the same for EA shelter and HomeBASE.

These programs are run by the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC, formerly DHCD). 

Can I get into shelter?

You can get EA shelter if all of the following are true:

  1. You are pregnant or have a child under 21 years old.
  2. Your income is lower than the income limit and you don't have assets of $5,000 or more.
  3. You have no place to stay, including with family and friends, or you have a place to stay but it is too crowded or is not safe; and
  4. Any member of your household is a U.S. citizen, refugee, lawful permanent resident, Cuban/Haitian entrant, or a person lawfully present in the U.S.
What if I am the victim of a fire or natural disaster?

If you have been through a fire or other natural disaster and you meet the criteria above, you can automatically get shelter as long as you provide proof of the disaster from the fire department, police, or Red Cross.

What if I my current housing is unsafe?

If you currently have a place to live but that place is a threat to your health or safety, you may be able to get EA shelter. You will need to prove that your current housing is a threat to your family's health and safety. You can do this by showing it is overcrowded or that there are severe violations of the state sanitary code (for example, no water, lead paint, overflowing sewage). 

You should not have to stay somewhere unsafe to get EA shelter. If your only option is to stay somewhere that is not meant for human habitation, you may be able to get EA shelter. Additionally, you may be eligible if your living situation is irregular and you have nowhere consistent to live.

You may also be able to get shelter if you need to leave your current housing because of abuse or a severe medical condition.

If your housing situation is unsafe because of domestic violence, you do not need proof of the violence. You do need to prove that you have nowhere else to stay.

What if I was evicted?

You are eligible if the eviction was due to one of the following, and was not caused by of any member of the EA household: 

  • Foreclosure 
    Former homeowners who were evicted following a foreclosure for failure to make mortgage payments generally will not be considered eligible for EA on the basis of a “no fault” eviction. However, if you can prove that its failure to make mortgage payments was the result of one of the excused reasons for non payment listed below, then you may be eligible on the basis of an “excused fault eviction."
  • Condemnation
  • Conduct by a guest or other household member who is not part of the household seeking emergency shelter, and the remaining household members had no control over their conduct
  • You didn’t pay rent because of:
    • A documented medical condition, a diagnosed disability
    • A documented loss of income within the past 12 months directly as a result of a change in household composition
    • A loss of income source through no fault of the household
    • Expiration of a lease without renewal
    • Termination of a month-to-month tenancy for no stated reason
    • The owner is selling the building, wants to move a family member into the apartment, or wants to make significant renovations to the unit or building

EOHLC should not deny you shelter for an eviction if:

  • You had other housing since the eviction and you lost that housing for a reason that is not a “disqualifying reason;"
  • You were evicted because of the behavior of another person who is not applying for shelter with you; or
  • The reason for the eviction was related to a disability. 
How do I apply for Emergency Assistance shelter?

To apply for EA shelter, you can call or go to the nearest Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) office. Find the DTA office nearest to you.

It is recommended that you apply by phone. The EA application phone number is (866)-584-0653. For additional language assistance, call (617)-573-1106.

You can also apply with an EOHLC worker at any DTA office that has EOHLC workers. Ask for an application. EOHLC must give you an application and let you fill it out the same day that you ask for it. If the DTA office near you does not have an EOHLC worker, the office will connect you to an EOHLC worker by phone.

You have the right to apply for shelter at any time that the DTA office is open, but you should get there/call as early as possible

You will have to give EOHLC information about your family, your income, and what you own. You will have to explain why you are homeless.

EOHLC must approve or deny you within 7 days. EOHLC must approve or deny you right away if your health or safety is at risk or if you have nowhere at all to stay.

EOHLC must give you an approval or denial in writing.

If a worker tries to convince you not to apply, ask to speak with a supervisor or office director. Call legal services if that does not work.

What if I prefer a language other than English?

EOHLC should ask you which language you prefer to communicate in when you apply. If they do not, tell them your preferred language. 

If you speak Spanish or another common language, you have the right to receive important documents, including the application, in your language. These languages include: Spanish, Haitian Creole, Arabic, and Portuguese.

You have the right to get free oral interpretation at EOHLC field offices, central office, hearing divisions, and shelters.

You can also call EOHLC at (617)-573-1106 to get free, over-the-phone interpretation. 

EOHLC and shelter staff can only ask your friends, family, or other shelter residents to interpret if it is an emergency. You have the right to a professional interpreter. 

EOHLC has a Language Access Plan and a Language Access Coordinator who can answer questions related to language services. If needed, you can file a language access complaint with the Language Access Coordinator. 

You can also contact the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute's Statewide Language Access Attorney at (617)-357-0700.

How long does it take to be placed in EA shelter?

Under the law EOHLC is supposed to immediately place eligible families with no place to stay. However, in October 2023 the state issued emergency regulations that capped the shelter system at 7,500 families and created a waiting list and priority screening system. 

How do I get into the HomeBASE program?

You must be found eligible for EA shelter to get into the HomeBASE program. 

If you are not currently in shelter but are eligible for EA and you are age 21 or older, contact a HomeBASE provider. 

If you are currently in shelter and are wanting to transition to the HomeBASE program, ask your shelter provider to connect you to HomeBASE Household Assistance.

What if I have no place to stay tonight?

Be sure to specify that you do not have a place to stay that night. If you are trying to apply by phone and do not receive a call back within 1 hour, keep calling back. If you are applying in person and are sent away, ask to speak with a EOHLC supervisor or contact an advocate.

Make sure that you have the documents necessary to prove eligibility. You can be placed immediately (presumptively placed) in certain scenarios. 

To be given presumptive eligibility, you must prove:

  • Identity of all adults
  • Identity of all children
  • Relationship between family members
  • Custody of all children
  • That all family members live in Massachusetts
What do I need to prove I am eligible?

You should bring as many documents as possible that prove you are eligible for EA shelter, like documents that say your income, your children's ages, and why you need shelter.

But you do not have to give EOHLC the exact papers that they ask for. You have the right to use different documents that show the same information.

You will need to prove: 

  • Your identity
    Examples: state license or ID card, birth certificate, passport, Immigration documents
  • Identity of all children
    Examples: birth certificate, passport, Immigration documents, statement from school administration on letterhead, statement from doctor on letterhead with name, date of birth, and primary caregiver of each child
  • The relationship between the members of your family who need shelter
    Examples: birth certificates with names of parent(s), marriage certificate, divorce papers, adoption papers
  • Who has custody of the children
    Examples: birth certificate, court approved adoption or guardianship order, school or medical records that show relationship of child to adult, sworn statements from relatives or neighbors that say child spends most of their time with you
  • You live in or intend to live in Massachusetts
    Examples: rent receipt or lease, voter registration card, school records, utility or other bill, letter from DTA.
  • Your family's income
    Examples for income: pay stubs or letter from employer, IRS filings if you are self-employed

    Examples for unearned income (SSI, Unemployment, TAFDC): letter from government agency stating benefit and amount, copy of a payment check or deposit

    Examples for if you lost your job in the past 90 days: layoff notice, dismissal letter, unemployment registration, proof of unemployment claim status, letter from former employer explaining why you lost your job
  • The legal status in the U.S. for 1 family member
    Examples: U.S. birth certificate, certificate of naturalization or citizenship, documents showing lawful presence 
  • That you are homeless for an eligible reason
    Examples of unsafe conditions or irregular housing: letters that show you have stayed in multiple people’s homes, pictures of unsafe conditions or staying somewhere not meant for human habitation, medical documents 

    Examples of fire, flood, or natural disaster: letter from Red Cross, fire or police department, landlord or insurance company

    Examples of domestic violence: letter from a domestic violence advocate or social service agency, police report, medical report of injuries, statement from a “reliable” witness

    Examples of eviction: court order of eviction, notice to quit, agreement for judgment, proof of loss of income in past 12 months, letter from a doctor or mental health professional stating that your nonpayment was due to a disability 

If your income is changing soon, EOHLC should use the best estimate of income for the next month. If you expect your hours or pay to be reduced, tell EOHLC and get a letter from your employer that says what your future hours and pay will be.

EOHLC or the Department of Children & Family Services may contact your friends and family to find out if you can stay with them. You should not be denied if your friends/family refuse to speak to them, but you should not refuse to let them contact them. 

What if I don't have all the papers that EOHLC asks for?

If you cannot get all the papers together right away, EOHLC has to decide whether whether you are eligible you based on your statements and the papers that they have. 

If you seem to qualify for shelter based on your statements and the papers that EOHLC has, EOHLC must find you eligible right away and give you 30 days to get the rest of the papers. This is called presumptive placement. If you have trouble getting any of the papers you need, an EOHLC worker has to help you get them.

If EOHLC gives you a “verification checklist” and tells you to come back, ask the Homeless Coordinator: “can you place my family presumptively and help us get the documents we need?”. 

To be given presumptive placement, you must prove:

  • Identity of all adults
  • Identity of all children
  • Relationship between family members
  • Custody of all children
  • That all family members live in Massachusetts

If you do not have these available and EOHLC refuses to place you because you do not have them, contact an advocate. You may still be able to be placed presumptively.  

Why was I denied?

Even if you meet the other rules explained in this guide, EOHLC can still deny you shelter for certain reasons. You may hear these reasons called “disqualifying reasons.”

EOHLC can deny you shelter if:

  1. You left subsidized housing in the past year. EOHLC calls this “abandoning subsidized housing.”
    1. But they should not deny you if you had good cause for leaving, like domestic violence or a serious threat to your safety in your home.
  2. You were in EA shelter in the past 12 months.
    1. But if you left shelter for safe, permanent housing and it ended up not safe or permanent, you may be able to get back into shelter without having to wait 12 months.
    2. Also, if you were in shelter, but left with Household Assistance, you may be able to get back into shelter after 3 months.
    3. You left shelter with a TESI that has not expired.
  3. You were evicted from subsidized housing in the past 3 years because you did not pay rent.
  4. You became homeless for the purpose of becoming EA eligible or getting a housing subsidy. 
  5. You failed to cooperate with a non-EA shelter or other housing assistance program. 

If one of these “disqualifying reasons” applies to a previous housing situation of yours, but not your most recent housing, you should be eligible. As long as you paid rent for at least 2 months in different housing after the “disqualifying reason”, you should be eligible. 

If EOHLC says you are not eligible because of the way you lost prior housing, contact legal services for help. 

The worker told me that I’m not going to be eligible. What should I do?

You have the right to apply for shelter, even if the worker suggests you will not be eligible. It is important to get the reason for denial in writing, especially if you want to ask for an appeal. EOHLC sometimes denies families for an incorrect reason, so it is important to get the reason for the denial in writing. Once you get a written notice of denial, you can appeal the denial, or show the notice to an advocate for advice and help.

Is EOHLC going to report me to DCF for being homeless with my children?

DCF cannot lawfully take your children away from you just because you are experiencing homelessness. If EOHLC threatens to report you to DCF (this is called a 51A petition), contact an advocate. 

Will I be placed in a shelter near my hometown?

If you get into EA shelter, you will not be allowed to choose the shelter where you go. However, EOHLC must place you within 20 miles of your hometown.

If there is no space within 20 miles, EOHLC will place you somewhere else in the state until a closer space opens up. As soon as a closer space opens up, EOHLC is supposed to move you closer to your town.

EOHLC is supposed to make every effort to ensure that children placed in EA shelter can continue going to school in their home communities. 

If you are in EA shelter and want to be placed where your children can continue going to school in their home community, make a written request to your EOHLC worker. You may also contact the school’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Liaison, or contact the Homeless Education State Coordinator at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

Also, if you or a family member needs to stay nearby because of a serious health problem, you can ask for an "accommodation" for a disability. This means that you can ask EOHLC to treat your family differently than other families because of the health problems. You can ask to be moved to the top of the waiting list for a closer placement. You can also ask to be allowed to stay with friends or family members until a closer placement opens up.


If you are given a placement that is too far or is not a good fit for a different reason, go anyway. Do not refuse placement, or you will lose your right to shelter for 12 months. You can appeal a placement and/or ask your homeless coordinator for a transfer closer to your home community. 

What are the shelters like?

There are multiple different types of shelters. If you qualify for EA shelter, EOHLC can place you in:

  • A shelter with other families (congregate shelter)
  • An apartment (scattered site shelter)
  • An apartment with another family (co-housing scattered site shelter)
  • A substance use shelter if you or another adult in the family have a substance use problem,
  • A young parents living program if you are a teen parent or a pregnant teen under age 22, receive TAFDC benefits, and space is available, or
  • Another EOHLC-approved temporary shelter, such as a hotel or motel. 

In certain circumstances, EOHLC may choose to place an adult child (21 or older) or a second parent in a separate shelter, including a shelter for single adults.

What is a health and safety assessment?

EOHLC has an agreement with the Department of Children and Families to do health and safety assessments of housing arrangements that families report are not safe or no longer available. 

The assessments should not delay placements in EA shelter. If the assessment cannot be done right away or if you can no longer stay in the housing that is to be assessed or it is not safe and you are otherwise eligible for EA, you should be placed presumptively until the assessment can be completed. 

Contact an advocate if you feel discouraged from applying for shelter because of an assessment or if you have nowhere to stay and EOHLC is delaying your placement pending a health and safety assessment.


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