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‘I don’t want to be left holding the bill’: Migrant arrivals push Mass. shelters, and towns, to the brink

A family walked back into the hotel where they are living in Kingston.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Town leaders in Sutton arrived at work one Monday late last month to find a surprising message awaiting them: The state had relocated more than two dozen migrant families to a motel in this Central Massachusetts town the night before. There was no nonprofit or other organization on site to help connect families with food or other needs. At least 16 children, town officials later learned, would eventually need to be enrolled in local schools.

“It’s controlled chaos, if you will,” Town Manager Jim Smith said.

The sudden arrival of families needing shelter and support is becoming a common occurrence in cities and towns across the state, where a surge of arriving migrants has pushed the emergency shelter system to the brink. State officials are increasingly turning to hotels and motels, where more than 2,400 families are now being housed.

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That, in turn, has forced local officials to scramble — sometimes, they say, with little help. Governor Maura Healey has activated up to 250 members of the National Guard to assist at more than 40 hotels that don’t have a contracted service provider, typically a nonprofit organization, to help families access medical care, find transportation, or organize food deliveries.

Smith said his town has requested two Guard members to come to Sutton. But local leaders across Massachusetts say they need far more from the state — money primarily — to help absorb their slice of the crisis.

“We have registered 16 school-age children for our school. But they don’t speak the language. We’ll have to hire an ESL teacher, probably some aides, and there’s a cost to that. I don’t want to be left holding the bill,” Smith said. “I want some assurances from the state that they’ll be there. We can’t afford this.”

Of the more than 80 state-subsidized hotels and motels being used to house families, about half — serving more than 750 families — don’t have a service provider, which can be a crucial liaison to local officials and schools.

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As in Sutton, town leaders around the state report receiving little notice from the state about arriving families, a symptom of a growing and fast-moving crisis. Even communities that have long played host to hotels housing homeless families say they’re staggering under the growing strain.

“I’ll always say more money. I can take more money, but we don’t have more physical space,” West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt said. Roughly 116 families currently live in two hotels in West Springfield, he said. The town recently built a new school, but the influx of 100 additional students has helped push the building to near-capacity, he said.

“Activating the Guard is not going to stop the flow of folks coming in, which I think is the bigger issue,” Reichelt said. “It’s tough on the schools. And it’s tough on the families. I doubt they want to live in a hotel.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Healey said her administration “does everything in our power” to support communities sheltering families and the service providers who are on site. The governor’s office said the state covers the costs associated with emergency assistance and provides emergency aid for each student enrolled in the local district. The state also passed a supplemental spending bill that Healey’s office said helps expedite money to school districts educating children living in the new shelters.

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“Massachusetts is in a state of emergency, and we rely on the partnership of communities to ensure that families have a safe place to stay at night,” said Karissa Hand, the Healey spokesperson. “The upcoming deployment of the National Guard will also provide critical assistance, and we continue to advocate for federal funding and changes to the work authorization process.”

Yet, like town officials, school officials say they have been caught flat-footed. Revere Public Schools Superintendent Dianne Kelly said the district, which serves about 160 homeless children, has 16 students who are migrants from Haiti living in a hotel in town.

At one point, the school’s homeless liaison stopped hearing from the service provider at the hotel. The school district eventually learned from the provider, Housing Families, that it no longer had the contract with the state to run the shelter, Kelly said.

“If there was one person who could be on top of this issue, that would benefit us as a school district,” Kelly said. “When we do a certain amount of legwork with a liaison and then that person is gone, it’s a challenge for the families and it’s a challenge for us as a school district. We don’t have the resources that are geared toward doing this work.”

Massachusetts is required to provide emergency shelter to homeless families under a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law, the only state with such a requirement. The mandate doesn’t apply to homeless individuals.

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The growing emergency has fueled calls, including from local mayors, to rework the requirement, or even suspend it, though it’s unclear if the Legislature is willing to take such a step.

Woburn Mayor Scott Galvin said Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll is hosting a virtual briefing for municipal leaders on Friday, where he’s hoping to learn more about the state’s plans. Woburn is housing upward of 150 families across multiple shelters and hotels, he said.

“I said from the beginning that we’re more than happy to do our share. But this is above and beyond what a community should be required to do,” Galvin said.

Experts also said that the National Guard deployment is only a temporary fix, and that the uniformed Guard members could be traumatizing to refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Instead, the state should increase investments for groups that are already on the ground in communities, said Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director for the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights.

“The need is really to ramp up the social services,” Sellstrom said. “If the National Guard is providing some services on a short-term basis, that may be an adequate stopgap measure, but social services providers and community-based organizations are going to be best equipped to assist migrant families.”

The Healey administration has worked for months to address the crisis, including adding tens of millions of dollars to the emergency shelter system, opening two new family “welcome centers” and a temporary shelter on Joint Base Cape Cod, as well as directing an infusion of money to local organizations helping migrants with case management and legal assistance.

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A number of Massachusetts groups have also received funding through FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which was funded by Congress to help localities dealing with newly arrived migrants and other unhoused people.

But still, it has not been enough. The administrative burden, said Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant, often falls squarely on local government. Currently, more than 90 hotel rooms in the city are housing homeless or migrant families, he said, though both hotels have providers on site, so Vigeant said he’s not expecting to receive aid from the National Guard.

“The governor’s dealing with it the best she can. But it’s not fixing anything,” he said of the activation. “It’s kind of just getting us through.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout. Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross.