Carmen lives with her husband and two young children in a Cambridge home that happens to have a separate apartment. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Carmen and her husband rented it on Airbnb for extra income. During the pandemic, through a free Airbnb initiative, they hosted traveling health care workers who needed a place to stay.
And for the past year or so, Carmen has hosted a handful of recently arrived migrant families — from Haiti and Venezuela, for instance — who were in need of emergency housing. The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Carmen and her husband wanted to use the apartment “in a way that was helpful for people,” Carmen told me in an interview. “We felt like we could do something a little more valuable.”
Carmen — which is not her real name; she preferred to remain anonymous — learned via a neighbor about BIJAN/Beyond, a nonprofit organization that provides services to immigrants, including court accompaniment, fundraising for bond payments, and logistical assistance with housing and transportation for newly arrived immigrants. (I wrote about the organization’s work in 2019.)
So Carmen got in touch with the group’s coordinators. It helps that she speaks Spanish. So far, the families she’s hosted have stayed only a handful of nights. Lately, she said, the volume of requests for volunteers to host migrants has increased.
Indeed, Massachusetts has been dealing with several crises at once: It’s a housing/emergency shelter crisis colliding with an influx of migrants moving to the area. While the state works to assign newly arrived migrants to long-term shelters, which can take a couple of days, most of them need to find a place to stay in the meantime. For a while, that’s why so many migrants were sheltering in the lobby of Boston Medical Center. But now that BMC is not allowing that, groups like Beyond and the Brazilian Worker Center have stepped up to coordinate temporary housing for migrants.
The intersection of those challenges is not unique to Massachusetts. Take Chicago, where more than 700 people were sleeping inside city police stations as of last week. In the last year or so, more than 80,000 newcomers have arrived in New York City.
“I think you could trace it back ultimately to when [Ron] DeSantis and [Greg] Abbott, [the governors of] Florida and Texas, respectively, began dumping immigrants elsewhere specifically to score political points, which is just an atrocious way of playing with the lives of people already traumatized,” said Kathleen McTigue, a retired minister who lives in Dorchester and who volunteers with Beyond fielding emergency housing requests and trying to find host families through the group’s network of volunteers.
But the problem with host homes is that they aren’t really a solution, McTigue said. They’re a solution for a night or two — a stopgap. Still, the immediate need exists to host unhoused immigrants temporarily as the state continues its efforts to expand shelters, as reported by WBUR’s Gabrielle Emanuel.
The Brazilian Worker Center in Allston launched the Family Welcome Center in partnership with the Healey administration last month as a first-stop for homeless or unhoused immigrant families struggling with basic needs, said Lenita Reason, the organization’s executive director. “Our administration continues to explore all options for expanding shelter capacity, including evaluating whether the host family program could be expanded,” Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Governor Maura Healey, said in a statement.
That would be a step in the right direction because the state seems to understand that it’s not a permanent solution. And the migrant influx is not abating.
There are currently 15 to 20 host families like Carmen’s in the state, according to the Healey administration. And they’re mostly active in hosting newly arrived families on weekends. Reason said the Brazilian Worker Center is recruiting host families, community organizations, and faith-based groups into a network of volunteers who “have rooms or apartments available” for new arrivals “to stay with them for one to two days until longer-term placements are arranged.” Reason said anyone interested in learning more about becoming a host family should email email@example.com.
Because she is aware of the temporary need for housing, Carmen plans to continue offering her apartment to migrants. She told me the benefits outweigh any costs, which are minimal and involve investing time in figuring out logistics more than anything else, according to Carmen. The migrant families often “look so tired when they walk in,” she said. And then “you just kind of see that a big weight has been lifted off their shoulders. … It sounds cheesy but you can see the look of relief in their eyes.”