QUINCY — Tensions flared Tuesday evening at a community meeting where more than 500 residents packed into Central Middle School to pepper city and state officials with questions about a recently opened migrant shelter at a local private college.
For more than two hours, people shared their support for migrant families, but also their frustration over not knowing enough about the “Family Welcome Center” located on the campus of Eastern Nazarene College.
The shelter drew widespread attention on Saturday night after a Massachusetts-based neo-Nazi group protested outside the dormitory temporarily housing 58 migrants, most of whom are Haitian.
Masked protesters chanted “Go home,” frightening neighbors and prompting dozens of residents to counter the demonstration with a show of support Sunday.
Outside the middle school on Tuesday, colorful signs reading “We WELCOME you!” were propped inches from posters that said “NOT HERE.”
The clash reflects tensions felt across the Commonwealth as the state’s emergency shelter system — required by law to provide housing for pregnant women and families with children — is housing approximately 6,400 families, more than a third of whom are immigrants, according to the state.
Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch, alongside officials from the college and the state’s housing and human services departments, attempted to reassure the crowd that Quincy was one of several cities and towns housing migrants.
“There are 6,400 families [being sheltered] in Massachusetts. Fifty-eight of those families are in Quincy, and the remainder are in 80 other cities and towns. Many communities are doing their part,” said Secretary of Housing and Livable Communities Ed Augustus.
In a letter to residents announcing the community meeting, Koch also stressed that the city “had no role in the planning or approval” of the welcome center, which is the second to open in Massachusetts.
One resident faulted college officials for not properly notifying residents.
“As your neighbor, I’m disappointed in the communication,” said Jenny McGrail, who lives near the campus. “I have no problem with the migrants, they’re lovely. I smile and wave when I see them on my street. But you could have sent a letter to your neighbors saying this is what we’re doing.”
Bill McCoy, the college’s vice president of academic affairs, responded that he “personally called every neighbor who called us asking about the site. But I won’t sugarcoat it, it wasn’t enough.”
The college signed a one-year contract with the state to operate the shelter, and said it is too soon to know whether that agreement will be extended, McCoy said.
Some residents directed their grievances at city and state officials.
“Have you ever brought a refugee family to your own home?” Yan He, speaking through a Mandarin translator, asked Augustus.
William Doyle, another resident, called for the state to amend the state’s right-to-shelter law to limit the number of migrants it is required to care for.
“We cannot sustain this many people in our city,” he said, urging residents to call Governor Maura Healey’s office and tell her to “amend this law, otherwise we’re going to kick you out of office!”
Some students spoke in support of the center being located on their campus.
“There were some concerns from the students at first, but as I’ve gotten back to campus, this has been perfect,” said Andrew Fitzpatrick, an assistant resident director.
“There’s more security, and I’ve felt safer this semester than I have the past two years,” he added. “This hasn’t had any negative effect on our campus... so sharing the student perspective, it’s a great program.”
Many who spoke recalled their own families’ immigrant histories, expressing gratitude for a country and state that welcomed their families as they arrived from China, Haiti, Italy, Ireland, and numerous other countries.
“I came here as a refugee after 10 days and 10 nights on the Pacific Ocean. I was a foster kid in a foster program. Today I am a contributing citizen ... and I want to give back,” said Thuy Leung, a business owner who emigrated from Vietnam at 8 years old.
“These immigrants are running for their lives, they’re not going to go after your kids or whatever it is you’re worried about,” she continued. “This is a transition for them.”
Officials clarified that the shelter is a transitional facility, where families will stay for a few days while their casework is being processed, and before they are moved to more permanent housing.
“They have to be families, they have to be with children or pregnant. I know that’s been a concern,” said Daurice Cox, executive director of Bay State Community Services, which runs the shelter.
“Most of the families will soon be moving to other hotels and shelters,” Cox said, adding that none of the children staying at the center are currently attending Quincy public schools.
Koch added that moving forward updates on the status of the welcome center will be available on the city’s website, along with information on how to volunteer and where to donate money or child-care products.