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State eyes vacant Newton hotel for temporary emergency shelter use

The Hotel Indigo in Newton is being considered by state officials as an emergency shelter for families.CITY OF NEWTON

State officials and a Newton developer are having “early conversations” about using a vacant hotel as a temporary shelter for families, as Massachusetts’ support system strains to help thousands of families in dire need of emergency housing.

If the property — formerly called Hotel Indigo and owned by Mark Development — were converted into a shelter, Newton would join a growing group of cities and towns that are providing housing assistance in a state facing a surge of new arrivals seeking help for their families.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development would temporarily use the hotel to serve as a shelter for families who qualify for state emergency assistance, including migrant families and new arrivals to Massachusetts, according to an agency spokesperson.

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Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said she recently learned of the developer’s discussions to use the building as a shelter, but has not yet heard officially from the state. However, she signaled support for the concept.

“Newton is a welcoming community that supports our State’s important efforts to address this humanitarian crisis,” Fuller said in a statement. “We stand ready to support the Commonwealth in the obligation to affirmatively further fair housing and our status as a right to shelter state.”

The state’s emergency shelter effort has placed 3,965 families in shelters across Massachusetts as of Tuesday, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development. The majority have been placed among 98 congregate shelter sites in the state, while 498 families are staying in 15 motels serving as shelters, the agency reported.

Former governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, had prioritized ending the practice of using hotel rooms to serve as emergency shelter for homeless families, and during his two terms, had dramatically reduced the number of families staying in those accommodations.

Massachusetts has a “right-to-shelter” law that requires homeless families are provided emergency shelter.

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But the surge of migrants coming to the state — a Globe review found no fewer than 11,000 migrants arrived in Massachusetts last year, most coming from the border with Mexico — reversed that progress, as the state scrambled to find more places for families to stay.

Many have fled their homes in Haiti, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela over fears of violence, political instability, and economic hardship.

Both Baker, and his successor, Democratic Governor Maura Healey, prioritized bolstering the state’s family emergency shelter system. Healey, just days after taking office last month, requested $85 million to support the program as part of a supplemental budget request.

Meanwhile, the number of families needing assistance has stretched the resources of the state’s network of public and nonprofit support agencies, particularly as officials race to find safe places for them to stay.

And the creation of temporary housing for families has sparked concerns from officials and residents in some communities, including Concord, where leaders learned last month that a Best Western hotel would serve as a shelter.

Some in that town have questioned how the shelter might affect Concord, including the impact on traffic and whether its school system would absorb additional students.

Last fall, leaders in Kingston and Plymouth said they were willing to help, but criticized the Baker administration for not giving them enough advance notice that families would be placed in hotels in those communities. Many of those families had been staying at a hotel in Methuen.

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Other local leaders, including Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll, who was then serving as Salem’s mayor, hailed the Baker administration’s approach.

During Baker’s final weeks in office, state officials converted an unused dormitory building at Salem State University to serve as an emergency shelter. There are about 90 families currently living in that facility, according to Nicole Giambusso, a university spokeswoman.

In Newton, the hotel eyed as a temporary shelter is located near the MBTA’s Riverside Green Line station and along Route 128, and has nearly 200 rooms, according to the city. Officials said they had not determined how many families might stay at the hotel or when it could open as a shelter.

Mark Development said in a statement that it recognizes many Massachusetts families are facing challenging economic times, and that it is talking with the state “to determine if the former Hotel Indigo could play a role as a short term solution.”

Mayor Fuller, in her statement, said the building has been vacant for years, and had been emptied in preparation for demolition as part of a project at Riverside. It would need work to become habitable again.

Susan Albright, the president of the Newton City Council, said the state would need to help Newton serve new residents — including providing for additional children in the public schools and programs to help adults find work.

“We ought to help these people get back on their feet again,” Albright said.

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Josephine McNeil, a longtime housing advocate, said if the hotel is used as a shelter, it will be important that the families who stay there have access to programming for children and English as a second language classes for adults.

“It’s important that they have services at the hotel to help the families,” she said.

Greg Reibman, a Newton resident and the president of the Charles River Regional Chamber, said he wanted to learn more about the details of any plan but supported the concept of a shelter in the city.

“We have a responsibility as a community to accommodate people,” Reibman said. “Newton is a welcoming community. I think that concept goes hand-in-hand with that commitment.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.