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‘This is completely different’: Hotel shelter housing over 40 migrant, homeless families reflects growing need

Cardinal Sean O’Malley spoke to Antoine Andrie, his wife, Dilonisa Andrie, and their daughter, 1-year-old Saieqea Andrie, during an ice cream social at the Catholic Charities Inn, the largest emergency assistance shelter run by Catholic Charities of Boston.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Charles Blaise and his wife, Rose-Lourdes, sat on a sofa in a second-floor hotel suite-turned-playroom in a state-run shelter for homeless families in Boston, watching on as their 1-year-old, Lourdes-Mica, played in a miniature ball pit.

The toddler’s siblings, 9-year-old Michaela and 2-year-old Mikelo Blaise, flitted around the room, which was filled with blocks, coloring books, and other toys.

The family is one of 42 living at the new shelter, the latest — and among the largest — of several facilities that have opened in recent months as part of Massachusetts’ program designed to house homeless and migrant families as required by the state’s 1983 “right to shelter” law.

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It’s a program the state has had to rapidly expand since the beginning of the year as a growing influx of migrants fleeing turmoil and poverty in places like Haiti and Central and South America has intersected with a protracted housing crisis that makes it nearly impossible for many new arrivals to find affordable shelter.

The demand remains intense, but time spent earlier this week inside the Catholic Charities Inn, a new shelter in Boston, shows how new arrivals like the Blaises are faring in their transition. A safe place to sleep offers families the stability to start and build a new life — something staff say is crucial to eventually moving people out of shelters and into the larger community.

“I want to take the bus or the train, and maybe find a job as a security guard,” Blaise, 42, told the Globe in Creole. His family — who spent months traveling from Haiti, crossing the US-Mexico border, and eventually riding a bus to Massachusetts — quickly regained weight and hope just days after settling at the shelter, he said.

Michaela Charles Blaise, 9, Mikelo Charles Blaise, 2, and Lourdes-Mica Charles Blaise played in a playroom during an ice cream social at the Catholic Charities Inn, the largest assistance shelter run by Catholic Charities of Boston. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

He rubbed his left arm, which bulged in a knotty mass where it had been broken in a street fight back in Haiti.

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The hotel, which started its new life as a shelter the last week of June, is very much in transition. Air conditioning is hit-or-miss in some of the rooms, and offices for the shelter directors (which are also located in hotel rooms) still have moving boxes on the floor.

In the hallways are baskets of fruit for the taking, as well as condiments for pre-packaged meals; there are no kitchenettes in this facility.

Down in the hotel’s lobby, families wrangled children, bounced babies, and lined up for scoops of ice cream, donated by Cabot’s as part of a summer celebration. As the seasons change, so will the activities. A homework room is in the works, and the shelter directors are starting to think about how to bring in donations of winter clothing.

Not all of the shelter’s 127 residents hail from abroad. Boston native Ed Contreras, 31, fed spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream to his son, 1-year-old Euro, who smiled after every bite, sprinkles falling onto his T-shirt. Contreras moved back to his hometown from New York when he got full custody of his children, Euro and daughter Edmaiah, 3.

He couldn’t work while taking care of the children, and turned to the state to help find housing for his family. Now the children are enrolled in day care, and Contreras can “get the ball rolling” again. He hopes this year, his children will improve their speech, and he wants to put his daughter into ballet lessons. The shelter employees have helped him navigate various public assistance programs, which he hopes will set his family up for future success.

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“You usually hear ‘shelter’ and get scared,” he said. “Whatever expectations I had went out the window.”

The shelter, which Catholic Charities expects to operate for the next two years, has 45 rooms and opened a few days ahead of the scheduled July 1 opening date. It’s by far the largest such operation the organization runs: Catholic Charities’ next-largest shelter can hold 17 families.

“This is completely different,” said Beth Chambers, the group’s vice president of basic needs. “But the need is there. And we are fulfilling a need within the community.”

The majority of the occupants are new arrivals to the shelter system, like the Blaise family, though some have transferred from shelters within the state, according to the nonprofit.

Katherin Franco, who moved from the Dominican Republic to Lawrence last year, found herself in a shelter in Lowell four months ago. She moved to Boston when the shelter opened up with her son, Dylan Soto, who slept soundly on her lap as she chatted with a reporter.

Franco, 27, came to the US “for a better future and to better myself,” and wants to work.

“There are more opportunities here,” she told the Globe in Spanish.

Last week, the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants rolled out a first-of-its kind program to provide legal services to new arrivals staying in the state’s emergency assistance shelters and hotels.

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The state opened the first Family Welcome Center in Allston last month, where staff has been working to connect families with essential supplies, services, and transportation to shelters, including a brand-new one at Joint Base Cape Cod.

And earlier this year, the Healey administration added tens of millions in funding to the emergency shelter system, and directed the infusion of money that is now helping to pay for the legal services.

As a right-to-shelter state, Massachusetts is obligated to provide care for homeless families, including migrants.

But even with the infusions of funding and efforts to open new shelters, the state has still struggled to keep up with the demand and risks running afoul of the law. The new arrivals to Massachusetts — many of whom are fleeing political strife, street violence, and economic collapse in their home countries — are turning up at places like Boston Medical Center at all hours in need of a place to sleep.

The crush of migrants recently led BMC, which serves the neediest patients in the Boston area, to institute a new policy barring migrant families from sheltering in its emergency department, in some cases even sending them after-hours in Ubers to Logan Airport.

As of Wednesday, the number of families in shelters had crept up near 5,000, with about 1,400 living in hotels, versus about 3,500 living in more traditional shelter settings.

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Groups like Catholic Charities are heeding the call of the state to help accommodate the growing need.

“The children of these immigrants will be Americans,” Cardinal Seán O’Malley told the Globe in an interview in one of the makeshift offices. “We are helping them, but they are going to help us. God put us on this planet to help.”


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross.