Grappling with an influx of thousands of migrants coming to Massachusetts, state officials this week began converting a vacant Salem State University residential complex into temporary residences for as many as 60 families.
The first families are expected to arrive in late November at the university’s Bates Complex, and will move into renovated one- and two-floor townhouse units at Salem State’s South Campus on Harrison Road, officials said.
“We’re a welcoming and inclusive community, and I think we’re a compassionate place,” Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said in an interview. “If there is a housing facility that can be used, we’re working with state partners [and] local stakeholders to welcome these families and ensure that they have the services they need.”
The effort comes as no fewer than 11,000 migrants, largely from the US border with Mexico, have come to Massachusetts this year, the Globe has reported. This surge is occurring on top of the effort to aid homeless families who already live in Massachusetts and need permanent shelter amid a scarcity of affordable housing across the state.
The state’s emergency shelter system has been strained, and it doesn’t have the capacity to meet the demand, state and local officials have said. The state has been working to find temporary housing for both migrants and existing homeless residents in communities across the state, with mixed results.
Last month, more than 100 people, mainly unauthorized immigrants from Haiti, were placed in temporary housing in Kingston by state officials after staying in a Days Inn in Methuen. Meanwhile, more than two dozen families, mostly from Haiti and Central America, were moved to the Plymouth area.
Local leaders in those communities criticized state officials for not doing enough to include them in preparations before migrants were moved.
Plymouth Town Manager Derek Brindisi has told the Globe, “it would have been easier to provide support if we had been a part of the planning process.”
In Salem, the effort to convert the vacant university housing complex into temporary residences is a collaboration between the city of Salem, officials with the state and the university, as well as Centerboard, a Lynn nonprofit that assists families and young people with housing, according to a statement.
The nonprofit will keep a staffed office at the residential facility, and will ensure that families have food and their necessities met, the statement said. The contractor will also assist families with housing searches, and will provide security at the site. The temporary housing is expected to be available until March 2024, officials said in a statement.
Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin, executive director of the Essex County Community Organization, a network of about 60 congregations that advocate for racial and economic justice, hailed the decision to convert the university space into temporary homes.
“I’m just really grateful that Salem State is taking a moral stand to support immigrant families in desperate need,” Klein Ronkin said in an interview.
“I hope the rest of the state will follow suit, not only in creating housing for families that have just crossed the border, but also for the hundreds of thousands of families that are housing insecure.”
Klein Ronkin said more must be done to address housing issues, and pointed to Driscoll’s decision to allocate more than $9 million from Salem’s American Rescue Plan Act funding to help support affordable housing in the city.
She hoped that Driscoll, who will take office as the state’s lieutenant governor next year, will encourage other mayors and local officials to follow “her leadership and caring for the least among us.”
In an interview, Driscoll said she will work with governor-elect Maura Healey to build off the Housing Choice law the state recently enacted, which is intended to help speed up housing creation in communities served by the MBTA.
The housing shortage “is at crisis levels,” Driscoll said. “And we’re going to have to lean into this work together.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.