As more migrant families arrive in Massachusetts needing a place to live, the state is scrambling to honor its right-to-shelter obligations amid a preexisting housing crisis. But the urgent need to find housing for so many people cannot mean shortcuts on safety.
More than 6,500 families are now living in shelters in Massachusetts, up from 5,600 last month, and the numbers continue to grow. Many of the roughly 22,000 individuals are recently arrived migrants who fled instability in Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, and elsewhere. Roughly half are children.
Finding enough safe places for them to live, as the state’s right-to-shelter law requires, has proven enormously difficult; the state’s shelter system was never designed with an immigration crisis in mind. Governor Maura Healey’s administration has had to open new emergency assistance shelters, including at approximately 80 hotels, to accommodate the record demand.
But a troubling chain of events leading up to a fire at a motel in Sutton suggests that even as officials contend with a crisis not of their making, they need to do a better job coordinating with local officials and ensuring those shelter sites are appropriate for families with children.
On Aug. 27, a Sunday, more than 50 migrants were placed at the Red Roof Inn in Sutton. The town of Sutton had been notified only two days earlier, on Friday after business hours.
The hotel had a certificate of occupancy. But on Sept. 7, local officials sent a letter to Healey’s administration outlining specific safety concerns, including the fact that the motel was in a high-crime area unsuitable for kids. Sutton’s chief of police, Dennis J. Towle, said the inn “attracts people of the criminal element” and the letter noted that two sex offenders have recently “habituated” or been arrested there. The building is also located next to a four-lane highway migrants had to cross by foot to get to a grocery store. The motel had recently been cited twice by the state because its system that’s supposed to enable first responders to pinpoint which room a 911 call is coming from had not been updated. And the local fire chief, Matthew Belsito, raised a specific concern about the lack of sprinklers and access to the municipal water system.
“The way the state does this is pathetic. I think it’s an absolute insult to public safety agencies in the Commonwealth,” Towle said. With advanced notice, he said, they could have mitigated safety risks, like migrants crossing the highway.
But the state plowed ahead. Then, on Sept. 13, a fire broke out on the inn’s second floor, sending one hotel employee to the hospital. There were no injuries among hotel residents, but the event ought to be a wake-up call to the state. Local authorities can’t have a veto over placements, but their input should be solicited, and when they raise concerns about a facility, they ought to be taken seriously.
That’s not to take anything away from the efforts of the Healey administration, which is working overtime to accommodate this unprecedented surge of incoming families. “The priority is placing families in shelter first,” said a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Housing Livable Communities. Sometimes that means local officials aren’t notified until placements occur.
But the administration should assume good faith on the part of municipalities and give local officials, including the chiefs of police and fire, sufficient notice before sending families into their communities. They should also listen carefully to locals’ concerns about not only the suitability of proposed shelters but the financial burdens the town may incur as a result. The cost of educating and providing services for this many children and families has to be shared equitably, not arbitrarily imposed on those communities that just happen to have a motel with vacancies.
On Tuesday, Healey reiterated her plea for federal funding, adding that the immigration situation “is not sustainable.” And certainly, there’s plenty more the Biden administration should be doing, starting with expedited work permits for migrants so that they can get jobs and support themselves. But the right-to-shelter law is state, not federal, law. As long as state law calls for housing all families — and lawmakers have signaled that no change to the law is under consideration — the administration needs to stay vigilant to ensure that housing is safe and appropriate.
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