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As Massachusetts scrambles to place families in emergency shelters, local officials bristle

Jeneeda Lewis and her children on Wednesday outside a Plymouth area hotel, where they moved from other temporary housing.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

KINGSTON — In another sign of how the nation’s immigration crisis is reaching into Massachusetts, officials in two South Shore towns were scrambling Wednesday to care for more than 100 migrants and homeless people who were relocated there in the past week.

As it has elsewhere, the sudden influx is triggering tensions, in this case with officials from Plymouth and Kingston charging that the Baker administration had failed to give them advance warning about the move. It is also underscoring how, in a state with an acute shortage of affordable housing, the surge of migration and a growing population of homeless people are straining the government’s shelter system to the breaking point.

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In Kingston, the state has placed 107 people in a hotel next to Route 3 in recent days. Town Administrator Keith Hickey said state officials told him they expect the new arrivals to stay there through the end of the year, adding that he first heard of the group’s arrival in a voicemail he received from a state official Friday evening.

The official, from the Department of Housing and Community Development, or DHCD, informed him that nine people had been relocated to Kingston. The next day, when he spoke to Kingston’s police chief, “the number had blossomed to 26,” he said. By Monday morning, Hickey said, there was finally a full accounting: 107 people, including 64 children, most of them unauthorized immigrants and non-English speakers from Haiti.

“I have expressed my disappointment to the representatives of DHCD,” Hickey said. “The Kingston School Department is going to have to educate these children with resources and tools that were not expected, that were not anticipated.”

Plymouth Town Manager Derek Brindisi said he received a similar call from the state late Tuesday. Twenty-seven families, he was told, most of them from Haiti and Central America, would be relocated to the Plymouth area this week. And some had already arrived.

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“These are people who need help, and Plymouth is a town that has always risen to the occasion to assist those in need,” Brindisi said. “But it would have been easier to provide support if we had been a part of the planning process.”

A Baker administration spokesperson said the state uses “apartments, congregate shelters, and, as a last resort, hotels and motels” as emergency shelters for families. “Due to high demand in the shelter system, some families recently have been temporarily placed in hotels, including in Plymouth and in Kingston, while more permanent shelter or housing is found,” the spokesperson said.

The families arriving in Kingston and Plymouth are among an influx of thousands of migrants who have reached the Boston area in recent months after entering the United States at the southern border. Nonprofits and state agencies have been struggling to keep up with the pace of new arrivals. Staff, money, and, especially, housing are in short supply.

The surge of migrants reaching Boston is a ripple effect of a national immigration crisis emanating from the southern border. The Republican governor of Texas and the Democratic mayor of El Paso have bused thousands of migrants north to alleviate overcrowding in Texas cities. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew 49 mostly Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last month as a form of protest against the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

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In New York City, the arrival of migrants combined with a growing homeless population led Mayor Eric Adams to declare a state of emergency early this month. Some of the migrants reaching Boston first traveled to New York on the buses from Texas. Others made their own way here.

And now Massachusetts is feeling the squeeze.

“The shelters are at maximum capacity, so [the state] is using whatever means it can including hotels and motels, said Geralde Gabeau, director of Immigrant Family Services Institute, which provided assistance to the Kingston migrants.

The Kingston group has bounced around in recent weeks as the state has tried to find a place for them. A 38-year-old Haitian man, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to his immigration status, said that the group had been staying at a Days Inn in Methuen before being moved to Kingston last Friday.

In an interview with the Boston Herald last week, Methuen Mayor Neil Perry expressed frustration that the state had relocated the migrants to his town with little coordination.

“There’s still no concrete plan,” he said days after the migrants’ arrival. “If the plan is to find them housing in the Methuen community, I have to respectfully push back. I have housing needs of my own community today I’m not satisfying.”

On Wednesday afternoon, staff members from the Plymouth Area Coalition, a family shelter, served food from a buffet outside the Kingston hotel.

Jeneeda Lewis, 37, said it was the first square meal she’d had in days. The Dorchester woman said she has been bouncing around the shelter system with her five children since losing her job, and then her apartment, during the pandemic.

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The state had placed her and her children at a Wyndam hotel in Methuen before busing them to Kingston along with the Haitian migrant families, she said.

The 38-year-old Haitian man said he had crossed the Mexico-Texas border in August with his wife and their three young children. They had left Haiti, he said, because of threats of violence against his family. From Texas, they flew to Logan Airport and then made their way into the housing shuffle, staying in Brockton before the move to Methuen and, now, Kingston.

He’s not sure where the family will go next.

Dieufort Fleurissaint, a Immigrant Family Services Institute staffer, said that several of the Kingston families he spoke to had come to Boston after reaching the United States in July or August and then flying to Logan. Newly arrived families often secure plane tickets from members of the Haitian-American diaspora who are eager to help their countrymen, Gabeau said.

At a Mexican restaurant near the Kingston hotel, general manager Michael DiBona said several of the families had eaten there in the past week. Some had money to pay for their meals and others did not.

He said he told one mother to call on him if her kids needed anything. “I’m not going to let the kids starve,” he said.

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Lewis, the mother of five, said she has a voucher for shelter beds, “but no one will accept it.”

“Until there’s a spot open in the shelter system,” she said, “we are stuck.”

Mark Pothier and Jenna Russell of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.


Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com. Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her @itsivyscott.