In an effort to protect homeless migrant families as temperatures dip, Massachusetts officials are converting conference rooms in the state transportation building in Boston into congregate shelter sites.
State emergency assistance director General L. Scott Rice said in a statement Monday that the space at 10 Park Plaza is being used “to ensure that families eligible for Emergency Assistance shelter have a safe and warm place to sleep at night when there is not a shelter unit immediately available.”
The second-floor space is outfitted with cots and limited amenities, officials said, and will be used only in the evening and overnight hours. It is available to families that have already been determined to be eligible for emergency shelter.
In an email to staff Monday morning that was obtained by The Boston Globe, MBTA general manager Phillip Eng said the rooms in the state transportation building will serve as a “short-term shelter” for around 25 families. The temporary shelter is expected to operate for up to two weeks, or until “a more permanent location can be identified,” Eng wrote.
The accommodations are a response to the “rapidly rising numbers of migrant families arriving in the state and a severe lack of shelter availability,” Eng said.
The temporary shelter space will be set up by the Massachusetts National Guard, Eng wrote, and managed by an unnamed service provider, typically a nonprofit, to help homeless families access medical care, find transportation, or organize food deliveries.
The shelter will be open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and there will be portable playpens available for young children.
For decades, homeless families have been guaranteed shelter under a 1980s-era law in Massachusetts, the only state with a so-called right-to-shelter requirement. But Governor Maura Healey recently decided to limit how many people could live in the shelter system, pushing those beyond the 7,500-family cap to a newly created wait-list. And recently, lawmakers failed to reach a deal on a wide-ranging spending bill, leaving in limbo hundreds of millions of dollars designed to sustain Massachusetts’ emergency shelter system.
Over the weekend, Healey told NBC10′s “At Issue” that “we need funding for emergency shelter.”
During a vigil outside the State House Monday night, state Representative Marjorie Decker criticized the state for not having a better plan to handle the needs of homeless and migrant families.
“Are you cold? I’m cold. I think about how many children tonight do not have a place safe to sleep,” the Cambridge Democrat said. “A wait-list is not a plan. A wait-list is not safety. We know for every family that is on a wait-list, there will be many, many families who will never get to that wait-list.”
House Speaker Ron Mariano said his chamber “remains committed” to housing homeless families, and that he will continue to urge the Healey administration to identify more overflow shelter sites.
The House’s spending bill language would have compelled the Healey administration to spend $50 million on overflow shelter spaces.
“Recent reports of families sleeping at Logan Airport, and now at a temporary overflow site at MassDOT, are emblematic of the need for funding that is specifically reserved for overflow shelter options with greater capacity,” Mariano said in a statement.
About 11 a.m. Monday, dozens of green cots could be seen standing inside the second-floor conference room at the transportation building, directly across the atrium from the MBTA board room.
The temporary MBTA CharlieCard store remains open in one conference room, said T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo. The MBTA moved the store to the space in September because of an air conditioning maintenance issue at the permanent store at Downtown Crossing.
Two officials asked a Globe reporter to stop taking photos and closed the conference room door. National Guard members were on the scene, and officials were bringing cases of bottled water and disinfecting wipes out of the conference room, stacking up extras along a railing that overlooks the first floor of the building. Workers unboxed smoke detectors and brought them them into conference room.
Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, referred questions to the governor’s office.
Monica Tibbits-Nutt, who was recently promoted to be the state’s transportation secretary, sent a separate email to staff Monday morning announcing the shelter.
“Thank you in advance for respecting the privacy of the individuals who are spending the night with us,” she wrote. “They are to be treated as our guests as we give them a warm and safe place to stay. My family and I will be counting our blessings as we are grateful to be in Massachusetts where compassion is one of the state’s hallmarks.”
Dr. Geralde Gabeau, executive director of Mattapan’s Immigrant Family Services Institute, said she was meeting with local churches Monday to see if they could accommodate families during the day.
The overflow sites are important, she said, but they leave families without food or reprieve from the cold weather during the region’s harshest months. She expects to see more families coming to her offices that have nowhere else to go.
“We don’t want them walking in the cold with their babies,” she said. “When families are placed and they are out in the morning, we know they are coming to us.”
In a Sunday evening WhatsApp message from a Boston Medical Center interpreter that was shared with the Globe, state officials said they were looking for two to three volunteers a day to help interpret, as well as register and welcome families.
The message included a survey link for potential volunteers, asking for languages spoken other than English, occupation, special skills that could serve the shelter site, and available times.
The dates began Nov. 20 and lasted until Sunday, Dec. 3.
“Please sign up for as many 12-hour overnight shifts as you can volunteer, and thank you so much for keeping families safe!” the survey read.
This story has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of Monica Tibbits-Nutt’s name.
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