Migrant Influx Fills Hotels, Strains State Shelter Capacity

Massachusetts State House

Photo: Thomas Kurmeier / Moment / Getty Images

BOSTON (State House News Service) - A triage center in Allston for migrants and people experiencing homelessness remains the only such facility to be opened so far by the Healey administration, even as officials for nearly a month have pledged more sites will open soon.

Immigration and refugee resettlement advocates say the Family Welcome Center, which launched above the Brazilian Worker Center on June 23, plays a critical role in referring people to emergency shelter options and providing them with basic needs, such as food and baby formula. But they're also imploring state officials to outline their broader strategy to respond to the swelling volume of migrants coming to Massachusetts looking for shelter -- and assistance to be able to work and support themselves here.

"I think this is definitely a step in the right direction, that this welcome center is open to everyone, it's open after hours," Andrea Park, director of community driven advocacy at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said. "I think what we're seeing is a problem of scale. The numbers in need don't match the ability and resources of at least one welcome center."

The Allston center is open from 12-8 p.m. daily and connects families to health services, a Healey administration official said. Eligible individuals are also enrolled in MassHealth, Department of Transitional Assistance programs, the Women, Infants and Child Nutrition program, and other resources.

The welcome center, located around the corner from a dog day care and record store, was mostly quiet early Wednesday afternoon.

But two Haitian families -- composed of two couples and two infants -- who just arrived in Boston on Tuesday came to the center, carrying duffle bags and their children, in search of a place to stay. Their taxi driver, who carried a piece of paper with the center's address, said the individuals were homeless.

The families came to the United States via Chile, according to Geralde Gabeau -- the executive director of the Immigrant Families Services Institute -- who translated the individuals' Haitian Creole on her way into the welcome center.  

It's unclear exactly how many more centers could be established and where they'll be situated, including in cities like Springfield and Worcester, where advocates told the News Service there has also been an increase in migrant arrivals.

"We are working to open additional Family Welcome Centers in the coming weeks and will share more details as they are confirmed," Karissa Hand, a Healey spokesperson, said in a statement to the News Service Tuesday, echoing her pledge from last week.

Officials have struggled to pinpoint how many migrants are in Massachusetts due to a lack of standardized data collection methods.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu estimated on NECN over the weekend that "potentially hundreds of people are arriving each day" and heading to Boston Medical Center and other places. A recent hospital policy has prevented migrants from seeking shelter at BMC's emergency department and staff are supposed to send them elsewhere after business hours, including to the last place they stayed; some have ended up at Boston Logan International Airport, The Boston Globe reported last week.

"It is simply not safe for an emergency room to function as a de facto emergency housing shelter or even closer to what feels like a refugee gathering point," Wu said. "We need migrant families to have the care, and safety, and housing stability that anyone else would."

The mayor said migrants are "coming from other cities in the country. They are coming seeking shelter and and we don't have a good handle now on how we can get the federal government to really be more efficient in processing people's work permits, asylum requests and immigration status so that they can then have the authorization to fully contribute to society how they're hoping to."

"It's very difficult because cities are seeing such an increase in flow," Wu said.

"Build The Plane While Flying It"

Xan Weber, chief advancement officer and senior vice president of the International Institute of New England that serves eastern Massachusetts, said the recent surge in families from Haiti and South America has surprised "everybody."

The institute this year has already helped about 3,800 Haitian arrivals enroll in federal benefits, Weber said. Up to 10,000 people could be served by the institute this year, compared to about 4,000 last year, said Weber, who attributed the unprecedented demand to a series of humanitarian, climate or geopolitical crises across the globe.

Weber said the institute has also aided Afghan evacuees, Ukrainian refugees and victims of human trafficking.

"There's a short-term emergency that the Healey administration is facing, and then there's the longer-term integration work that is able to take the emergency and turn it into something very beneficial for the state, which is all these families wanting to work, and wanting to contribute and wanting to learn English," Weber said. "I look to people coming as our future and certainly a huge economic benefit for us."

As Weber sees it, the Allston welcome center fills an important need by operating later in the day and helping migrants access housing. But Weber said she'd like to see more state-run welcome centers operating overnight and offering immigration intake services.

"It's just not clear to me what the bigger plan is," Weber said.

When the welcome center is closed for the night, families are supposed to return to the last safe place they slept, an administration official said.

For now, the welcome center is not conducting immigration intakes, which would determine people's status and whether people are eligible for work authorization, said Heather Yountz, senior immigration attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Rather, Yountz said, the focus is on basic triage, such as asking migrants if they have an upcoming court date or need to check in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"The ability to support themselves and support their families and afford a place to live and food for their children is essential to immigrants surviving in the United States and becoming an important and instrumental part of the society," Yountz said. "Work authorization is a key piece of new arrivals becoming part of Massachusetts society and being able to support themselves and move out of shelter housing."

MLRI is part of a group of immigration stakeholders -- including from legal services, community organizations, municipalities and schools -- that speak regularly about the migrant landscape, Yountz said. Representatives from the state's Office for Refugees Immigrants were on Friday's phone call, she said.

While the migrant crisis has affected Massachusetts for over one year, Yountz said there's been an uptick in new arrivals since April, including those coming from other states like Florida.

"This has been a humanitarian crisis, and it's ongoing," Yountz said. "I think that the state is doing the best it can to build the plane while flying it, and there is a lot more that new arrivals need."

Hotel And Shelter Impacts

Beyond welcome centers, the Healey administration has been quietly expanding the state's emergency shelter system. The Archdiocese of Boston, for example, was recently asked by state officials if any of its buildings could be refurbished to settle immigrant families, said J. Bryan Hehir, secretary of health and social services for Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

Hehir said the Archdiocese identified four buildings in Boston and nine in the greater metropolitan area, including former convents, schools and parish rectories where priests formerly lived.

"It's up then to the state to look at them and decide whether they can refashion them to make them available," Hehir said. "The government has a responsibility to shelter people who arrive, so that's the immediate crisis."

Catholic Charities, an agency of the Archdiocese, worked with state officials to open a 45-room hotel shelter in Boston earlier this month, said Beth Chambers, who's vice president of basic needs. The shelter is expected to remain open for at least two years, Chambers said.

About 48 people were staying there as of Monday, though Chambers said she expects that figure to reach closer to 120 when the hotel expands its capacity. All hotel rooms have two queen size beds, a private bathroom, microwave and refrigerator, she said.

Chambers said the majority of residents so far are immigrants, especially from Haiti, but there's also homeless individuals who needed to be relocated closer to Boston to access medical care.

She and fellow social workers are constantly responding to questions from new arrivals, such as how to register for state benefits and enroll their children into Boston Public Schools. There are no language barriers at the hotel, Chambers said, as staff are on hand who speak Haitian Creole.

All told, nearly 40 hotels across 30 municipalities are being used as emergency shelters, according to an official from the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities. That translates into 1,319 units as of last week.

Non-hotel emergency units neared 3,800 as of May, the official said. Seventy-one communities overall have emergency shelters, according to the official.

Municipalities with both hotel and non-hotel emergency shelter units include Boston, Braintree, Burlington, Chelsea, Chicopee, Concord, Danvers, Dedham, Greenfield, Holyoke, Kingston, Marlborough, Methuen, Norton, Norwood, Peabody, Plymouth, Revere, Saugus, Shrewsbury, Sturbridge, Taunton, Waltham, Wareham, West Springfield, Westborough, Woburn and Worcester.

The state's emergency shelter system is "strained," according to a letter from Gov. Healey's office sent to Rep. Peter Durant and shared with the News Service in response to his May 31 records request to the governor's office.

"The uptick in newly-arrived families coupled with challenging housing market conditions in the Commonwealth, among other factors, have resulted in a sizable increase in families seeking shelter in the EA system," Jesse Boodoo, a records access officer, told Durant in a letter dated June 30. "We are struggling to not only find physical shelter space, but also shelter providers capable of efficiently and effectively connecting families with the robust services necessary for child and family health and well-being and long-term stability."

Few families have exited hotel shelters so far due to the "very new" caseload, according to the letter. Boodoo said that makes it difficult for officials to calculate an average length of stay.

Families who exited the emergency assistance shelter system in the last fiscal year stayed for an average of 14 months, Boodoo said in the letter.

People can apply for emergency assistance by calling 866-584-0653 or visiting regional offices.

Written By Alison Kuznitz/SHNS

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