A quiet drama unfolded in Taunton this spring — one that was emblematic of the strains breaking out across Massachusetts as the state struggles to absorb thousands of foreign migrants. State authorities signed a contract with the 155-room Clarion Hotel in the city to use it as a state-funded emergency housing shelter. By May, about 120 homeless and migrant families, mostly from Haiti, were staying at the hotel.
Soon after, the administration of Mayor Shaunna O’Connell began issuing code violations against the hotel: a daily fine of $1,000. The reason? “The occupancy of the guest suites had exceeded the design occupant load,” O’Connell said to the Globe editorial board via email, and thus created a safety hazard. In early June, the mayor told local media outlets that the Clarion was housing nearly 450 people, more than the maximum capacity for the hotel at 360. In her email to the Globe, O’Connell said that the hotel owner’s architect subsequently provided documents showing that the building may in fact be compliant, which has led the city to stop issuing the fines. “A total of 19 tickets were issued totaling $17,600.00 in fines,” wrote O’Connell. “None of the fines have been paid to date.”
The Taunton episode is only one example of the local political tensions that a confluence of two crises has spurred: On one hand, there’s the persistent housing crisis that’s pushing more and more people into homelessness; on the other hand, the state is contending with a major influx of migrants. The state’s emergency housing capacity is being pushed to its limits. Municipalities, local institutions, and other stakeholders can do their part by cooperating with the administration of Governor Maura Healey as it seeks to house these families. But it’s the federal government that could help the most, by allowing those migrants to work so that they don’t have to rely on emergency shelter.
As of July 29, there were nearly 5,400 families in state-subsidized shelters, according to the Healey administration. Of those, roughly 1,700 are housed in hotels and motels. Because state authorities don’t track immigration status, there’s no way of knowing exactly what percentage of that population consists of migrant families. But state officials estimate that between a third and a half of those 5,400 families are newly arrived (within the past 30 days).
There are real public health risks of housing people in cramped quarters, as exposed by the recent outbreak of a respiratory illness at an Everett hotel where nearly 300 families are staying. And Taunton is not the only locality where tensions have flared over placement of migrant and housing families. In her email, O’Connell said that there has been “an increased strain on public safety due to a significant increase in calls at the hotel” and a need to “hire teachers due to the number of new students” in the public school district. Officials in Marlborough are similarly concerned about the impact that a local surge of Haitian families will have on its schools. In North Adams, a plan to use unused dormitories at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as temporary shelter was rejected by the college in May.
But other providers and municipalities have stepped up to the challenge. Over the weekend, the Catholic Charities Inn, a new shelter, opened in Boston with a capacity to house roughly 40 families. On Monday morning, the Healey administration opened a second “Family Welcome Center” and a shelter on the campus of Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy. In Greenfield, city officials received such an outpouring of donations for roughly 40 families housed by the state at a local Days Inn hotel that they had to ask area residents to pause their donations of clothes, diapers, and other items last month. Holyoke has declared that the city’s doors are open to new shelters.
And yet, it’s unreasonable to expect cities and towns, or even the state, to solve the crisis. Most of the newly arrived working-age immigrants will likely wait for months for work authorization, which hobbles their ability to become independent. According to the state, in fiscal 2023, the average length of stay for families who left a state-funded emergency shelter was 14 months.
States and cities all across the nation are struggling with the complex dynamics that come with the unprecedented influx of newly arrived migrants, many from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, Venezuela, or Ukraine. Consider this statistic: In less than two years, the Biden administration has welcomed more than a half million asylum-seekers and refugees under different avenues designed to reduce illegal entries at the US-Mexico border, primarily through the use of parole authority, according to a CBS News report based on unpublished government data. But many have to wait to apply for work permits.
The Biden administration ultimately has to find a way to streamline and speed up work authorizations for all the thousands of newly arrived migrants. In the meantime, Massachusetts is doing arguably far more than its share: The fiscal 2024 state budget agreement includes $324 million for emergency assistance family shelters, an increase of 48 percent above the previous fiscal year budget. Individual communities, some grumbling more than others, are shouldering extra burdens too. Letting refugees and asylum-seekers work would be the best way for the Biden administration to help states, cities — and the migrants themselves.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.