Governor Maura Healey’s administration is considering opening an overflow shelter for homeless and migrant families inside a Roxbury recreational complex, the latest sign of the stress an influx of people in need have put on Massachusetts’ emergency shelter system.
The Melnea A. Cass Recreational Complex would be at least the third overflow shelter site the state has directly created to house those who have been waitlisted for a spot in its overwhelmed shelter program.
The Healey administration had been in talks with City of Boston officials about potentially using the state-owned Roxbury complex or other locations, such as Suffolk Downs on the Boston-Revere line, as an overflow site, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private talks.
The Cass complex in Roxbury is the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s only year-round indoor facility, according to the state’s website. It includes a 24,000-square-foot indoor field house and an outdoor pool for use during warmer months.
L. Scott Rice, the state’s emergency assistance director, said the Healey administration is evaluating “numerous facilities,” including the Roxbury center, for homeless families, “especially those staying at Logan Airport overnight.” Scores of people have been sleeping in the airport’s Terminal E, including about 80 people on Thursday night, the Globe reported.
“Our system is at capacity and there is an urgent need for additional safety-net sites,” Rice said, “and we appreciate the collaboration of communities to help us ensure that no family is left out in the cold.”
Should the state ultimately open a shelter at the Roxbury center, officials believe it could hold roughly 100 families, according to Healey’s office.
It wasn’t immediately clear how that would affect others who currently use the recreation complex, including for afterschool or sports programs.
Politicians, including Governor Healey, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, and multiple state legislators and city councilors attended an online listening session Friday about the proposal.
Healey made her pitch to about 250 people on the Zoom call, saying she was asking for help from the community and emphasizing she knew that the facility was important.
“It looks like it could work well,” she said. “It’s a temporary solution.”
Indeed, her administration said the site could start accepting families as soon as next Wednesday, and the operation would wind down in mid-to-late May. The center could hold 300 to 400 people, providing places to sleep, showers, play, and access to computers.
She faced stiff pushback from some Roxbury residents who said their neighborhood was already overburdened with problems due to decades of disinvestment.
“You’re really putting us in a bad, bad situation,” said Rodney Singleton on the call. “And it’s not fair.”
Wu said that Boston wants to help, but noted the Melnea Cass site would be the largest overflow site in Massachusetts and is the first time the state is asking a community to give up a local asset to address the migrant crisis. ”That I take very seriously,” said Wu. She added that, “we need to have a sense that all the state options have been exhausted.”
The overflow sites are designed for those waiting for a place in the state’s emergency shelter program, where officials say the demands have pushed costs to nearly $1 billion a year.
Of the roughly 7,500 families in the state system, about half are migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers, state officials have said. As of mid-January, 1,305 homeless and migrant families were staying in hotels, motels, or shelters in Boston, by far the most of any Massachusetts town or city; Worcester, with 302 families, had the second most, according to state data.
The Legislature included up to $50 million for overflow shelters — and $250 million overall for the system — in a multibillion-dollar spending bill Healey signed last month. Lawmakers also passed language requiring Healey stand up overflow sites after she began limiting how many people the shelter system could house under a 7,500-family cap.
The crisis has shown few signs of abating since. The system is still at capacity, according to state data, and as of last week, there were more than 540 families on the state’s waitlist. That demand far outpaces the roughly 180 families the state has been able to accommodate at overflow shelters in Quincy, a former courthouse in Cambridge, and elsewhere.
The influx of migrant families has strained state finances. Healey this week unveiled a state budget plan that proposes spending $325 million on the emergency shelter program, but that’s well short of what’s needed. Her administration believes actual costs in both this year and next will top $915 million.
On Wednesday, she filed a separate plan she’s teased for weeks that calls for draining a state surplus spending account of more than $800 million to help cover shelter funding across both years.
Healey has repeatedly emphasized the need for more federal help to handle what she and other governors have called a humanitarian crisis. On Wednesday, she also suggested the state could seek changes to the shelter system itself “to make sure that we’re doing things in a smart way.”
She declined to say what those changes could be, and did not directly answer whether that could include limiting how long families can stay in the system, another change officials have considered.
A previous version of this story incorrectly described the size of the Melnea Cass Recreational Complex’s field house.