State officials are consolidating shelters for homeless and migrant families into hotels fully dedicated to providing emergency shelter, a move officials say will allow the state to better coordinate its response to the needs of migrant families, but others criticize as a chaotic and potentially harmful shuffle.
The state moved families out of two shelters last week and plans to close eight more by the end of the month, changes that will affect 250 homeless and migrant families, or roughly 800 people as the fall semester comes to a close before the holidays. As of Monday, there were 7,532 families in shelter statewide.
As of now, families living in Woburn, Arlington, and Billerica will move to new locations, according to Jeffrey Thielman, chief executive of the International Institute of New England, a resettlement agency that has been directly involved in providing services for families living in shelters.
In a statement, Scott Rice, emergency assistance director general, said the goal of the consolidation is to move families out of some of the short-term hotel sites, many of which are operated by the National Guard and lack contracted service providers to help families navigate the system. The families will move into “new, larger sites,” he said.
“Staff is working hard to ensure continuity of education, medical care, and other services, and we are working closely with all impacted communities to ensure they have the support they need to welcome families,” he said.
But the news has made its way to families through different channels, and has sowed confusion among shelter providers and school superintendents.
In Arlington, where families living in a nearby hotel shelter have children enrolled in local elementary, middle, and high schools, schools Superintendent Liz Homan has been working to navigate the state’s response to the crisis for months. She said school officials often get little notice when families are coming or going, and have to manage their resources to accommodate the children.
After hearing the news that the families were moving out of the local hotel, staff have been working to inform the families of the option to keep their children in school, even if they move to a different city. In order to comply with a federal law that ensures equal educational opportunities for homeless children, school districts share costs to bus students to school if the child is staying in a shelter in a different community.
“The biggest challenge has been unpredictability,” Homan said. “The lag is completely understandable, but it does make things difficult.”
In Woburn, Superintendent Matt Crowley told colleagues in an email that changes have been frustrating and surprising.
“Like the families, we are given very little notice or voice,” he wrote.
The repercussions of the moves ripple out beyond the school district, too.
Resettlement groups and nonprofits have been working to connect people to services and help them form roots in the community. When families are moved with little notice, those ties are severed. Pregnant women receiving prenatal care, children with special needs receiving individualized education in the public schools, families receiving medical care from local doctors — all could be disrupted by the consolidation.
Dieulene Pluvoise, 37, said the biggest concern has been the misinformation. Her family has been among those living in a Woburn shelter; they hear rumors that “over there” in the new shelter, children can’t make noise and families won’t be able to cook for themselves.
“And no one can tell us where ‘over there’ is,” she said.
Her husband, Nixon Blaise, agreed.
“Once we are stable enough, we can take over the care of our families,” he said. “But I don’t know who to trust or who to talk to.”
He added that he had a few leads for jobs in Woburn, but he’s had to give them up because of the move.
One mother-to-be, Kenide, worries about what will happen when she gives birth next month. She said she hopes for a place to cook proper meals. The 31-year-old said she found out about the move from others in the hotel, which she found to be “very disrespectful.”
“My biggest problem is when they make the plans and don’t involve us,” she said.
State Senator Cindy Friedman has taken similar issue with the state’s communication, noting that the decision doesn’t take into account the resettlement work being done.
“There is quite a disconnect between the business of what’s going on and then what it means to people, especially children, when they are being moved around like this,” the Arlington Democrat said. “What’s the plan? It feels like it’s all being planned in a vacuum.”
For months, state leaders, including Governor Maura Healey, have been working to manage the overburdened shelter system, which has had to rapidly expand to accommodate an influx of migrants fleeing turmoil and poverty in places like Haiti and Central and South America. Coupled with a housing crisis, it’s nearly impossible for many new arrivals to find affordable shelter.
On Monday night, the Healey administration announced a proposal to dip into the state’s surplus account to help cover the mounting costs brought on by the shelter system, projecting it will need $224 million more this fiscal year and $915 million in the next.
According to state officials, the consolidation will not reduce overall shelter capacity; they also said that all families were notified in advance. Students can opt to continue going to school at their current location, or enroll in new schools. The Department of Public Health is also working with local officials to make sure families can transition to new doctors, officials said.
But even then, the Healey administration has scrambled to manage the situation.
In a Dec. 8 email obtained by the Globe, Healey’s legislative affairs director informed lawmakers that families staying at a hotel shelter in Billerica would be transferred on Dec. 19 “in an effort to consolidate supplemental shelter sites.”
On Dec. 15, days before the impending transfer, a lead on the regional shelter response team said the transfer would be pushed back due to a delay in finalizing a contract, but didn’t provide a new date.
“As soon as I have the new date, I will share it with you all,” she wrote. “Apologies for any inconvenience this may cause!”
To Thielman, of the international institute, the state has good intentions in caring for families, but is not bringing in enough community members or communicating to enough leaders to fully understand the repercussions of moving families.
“It’s clear to me that state officials were not taking into account the needs of children in schools when they were making these decisions,” he said. “What we are concerned about is disruption to families.”