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Hospitals and aid groups press state for improved ‘front door’ to emergency shelter

Boston Medical Center, in particular, is struggling to handle a stream of migrants who need housing.

Sergeline, who did not want to give her family's last name, kissed her baby, Luna, as her son Fritz, 17, sat on a bed in a hotel room in Boston. They arrived from Boston Medical Center’s waiting room.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

On any given night, the lobbies of hospitals in the Boston area have a clutch of people who are not there for health care. Rather, they are homeless, often newly arrived immigrants, looking for a safe, warm place to spend the night.

But as the numbers escalate, hospitals and groups that work with migrants are pressing the state to expand access to emergency housing to help the city’s homeless families without drawing on critical hospital resources.

“A hospital is not set up to be the front door to the state’s family shelter system,” a spokesperson from Boston Medical Center said in a statement. “BMC has urged the state to explore solutions that are open day and night, provide temporary shelter, and connect families to state and federal resources. It is critical that any solution address the magnitude of the crisis.”


The problem reached a high point last Wednesday, when 55 men, women, and children who had fled Haiti sought shelter in a lobby at BMC, staying in chairs overnight in the lobby.

While all those families were placed in temporary housing over the weekend, a hospital spokesperson said another group of more than a dozen adults and children from Haiti sought shelter overnight in the lobby on Monday.

On Tuesday the Healey administration said it plans to spend $1.75 million on a new program called Immigrant Assistance Services. The money is enough for 800 individuals and families currently living in state-run homeless shelter placements and will include an intake and triage process to help immigrants with advice, legal services, and other supports.

The state’s housing agency is also ramping up supports. A spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Community Development said the agency is hiring an 60 additional staff. The agency is also trying to improve a call center, which receives the majority of contacts and applications for shelter.


BMC has had a steady stream of migrants seeking temporary shelter since the fall of 2021, shortly after Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake that prompted many to flee. But the numbers are rising.

“There’s been a huge increase in Haitian arrivals in the past three months,” said Jeffrey Thielman, chief executive of the International Institute of New England, a migrant aid nonprofit, who said his organization was providing assistance to 1,800 Haitian migrants as of Monday.

There are myriad reasons for the surge, but the uptick in arrivals from Haiti can be attributed to violence in the country, said Dr. Geralde Gabeau, head of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan.

Larry Seamans, chief executive of Boston-based FamilyAid, said his human services agency has helped 175 families, more than 550 people, find emergency housing since last July, all of whom came directly from BMC. Nearly 70 percent of those families were from Haiti, a few were from South America, and the remainder were local residents grappling with housing instability.

FamilyAid has been helping BMC since the COVID pandemic, when people who had lost their homes because of the economic upheaval would go to the hospital for shelter. With funding from the city, FamilyAid began providing temporary housing for families who showed up at BMC and Boston Children’s Hospital in the middle of the night. At the time, 65 percent of the families seeking shelter through the hospitals were Massachusetts residents and US citizens.


But what started as sheltering three to four families a week escalated to nine, then 15 families a week. With the increase in numbers, the origins of families shifted to include more people arriving from abroad.

“This is a crisis of epic proportions,” said Seamans. “It’s a humanitarian crisis where 60 percent of the population in dire need are little children.”

As of Monday, FamilyAid was providing emergency housing and related services to 4,800 parents and children.

Other hospitals are also helping growing numbers of homeless families. Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest health system, said in a statement that there has been an increase in families from Haiti and Central and South America seeking shelter and medical care in its emergency and obstetrics departments.

“We are committed to supporting these families in crisis while identifying short- and long-term medical and psychosocial services needed,” Mass General Brigham said in a statement.

At Children’s, Melissa Deane, a social work manager, said the institution is working closely with the state to gather information and start applications for emergency housing. But the state offices close at 5, so Children’s tries to find families arriving or who are there in the evening a safe place to spend the night at the hospital. Those coming to the hospital for medical and psychological care receive priority, so sometimes homeless families have to stay the night on couches in the lobby.

“Having to provide this type of social support for families stretches our resources beyond capacity at times,” Deane said. “It certainly stretched my program’s resources . . . about 40 percent of my social work staffing I’m dedicating to helping families navigate the emergency assistance shelter system.”


The spokesperson for the state’s housing agency said Governor Maura Healey’s administration is “working to ensure all eligible families have access to shelter in order to minimize the impact on emergency medical care.”

The crunch on the shelter system has been exacerbated by the state’s ongoing housing crisis and uptick in migration. The state’s 1983 “right-to-shelter” law obligates officials to immediately house eligible families. Massachusetts is the only state to have such a law, which pushes officials to find shelter options on short notice. It can include hotel rooms for longer-term stays.

On Monday, 19 new families eligible for shelter entered the system, and the number of families staying in hotels or motels climbed to 811, nearly double the number in late January, according to state figures.

Gabeau, whose organization serves newly arrived Haitians, said people go to BMC because they are told by other migrants the hospital is a reliable place to get connected. The state needs a more centralized place for migrant and homeless families to go to for both medical and housing resources, she said.

“We don’t want to see our families go to Boston Medical Center for housing,” said Gabeau, who noted her office had 130 people stop in on Sunday alone.

Boston has the third biggest Haitian community in the United States, which Thielman said draws Haitian migrants to the state.


Part of the reason families may be redirected to BMC is because the typical offices where they apply for emergency shelter are only open during business hours. Processing centers run by the Department of Housing and Community Development are open weekdays only, and some locations are open even fewer days, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The agency’s call center also operates on business hours.

Seamans of FamilyAid said emergency housing resources need to be open and accessible when families need them.

The state also lacks enough emergency housing, though the governor and Legislature have committed funding to increasing such supports. When he spoke, Seamans was touring sites to potentially convert into emergency housing.

“It’s unprecedented and we have to come up with some better solutions,” Seamans said.

Globe correspondent Nick Stoico and Mike Damiano of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at Follow her @ByJessBartlett. Samantha J. Gross can be reached at Follow her @samanthajgross.