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Wealthier Mass. communities avoid brunt of expanding shelter crisis, Globe analysis shows

Nixon Blais, left, and his mother, Dieulene Pluvoise sat in their Woburn hotel room in November.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As Massachusetts struggles to find housing for an influx of migrants, a Globe analysis of state data finds that few wealthy communities are hosting emergency shelters for homeless and migrant families while the bulk are in middle-income cities and towns.

Of the 94 communities hosting emergency shelters, more than half have a median household income below $100,000, while just nine of those communities — including Acton, Concord, and Lexington — have household incomes above $150,000.

The state says its process for placing shelters is driven by the availability of space and factors such as their proximity to critical services such as public transportation.

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But many communities say they are having trouble providing all the resources people need, such as transportation and translators, and worry the strain on their limited resources will reach a breaking point.

They also say it’s unfair that other municipalities, particularly wealthier communities, aren’t stepping up to help.

“The sense is that wealthier communities are not bearing any of the burden,” said Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell, whose city has a median household income of about $89,800. “When you suddenly have 300 or 400 new people coming to your city, it puts a strain on services. . . . Communities like Newton or Wellesley could bear some of the obligation that we are under.”

The Globe used census data and state emergency shelter data to map the number of people being sheltered in each community and its median household income.

The median household income for Massachusetts was $96,505, according to 2022 Census data.

State officials say they consider numerous factors when choosing shelter sites for migrant and homeless families. The system has ballooned over the last year, as the twin housing and immigration crises have forced more people to seek shelter from the state.

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First, Massachusetts housing officials look to municipalities where there are existing shelters or an ample number of hotel rooms, which are often in poorer communities that also have social services to provide financial support, medical care, and connections to programs for the homeless population.

State officials also weigh points such as the time it would take to open the shelter, the location’s proximity to key services, the size of the space, and whether it is safe, clean, and has proper insulation, bathrooms, and showers.

A lack of space in existing homeless shelters and spiking demand have forced state officials to also search for hotels that can be dedicated to housing homeless families, rather than paying guests.

While the state’s housing office works to identify potential shelter sites on its own, landlords, hotel operators, and nonprofits can also respond to a request for bids on the state’s vendor services website. A similar process exists for overflow shelters.

Local municipal leaders say they are often the last to know when the state decides to locate a new shelter site; the contracts are negotiated directly between the hotel owner and the state or, in many cases, a nonprofit.

”This is an overextended crisis, and it’s not going to get better,” said Etel Haxhiaj, an advocate at National Health Care for the Homeless Council and a city councilor in Worcester, which is home to the second-highest number of homeless and migrant families in the state, after Boston. “It’s going to have to be all-hands-on-deck for all people in all towns.”

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In Taunton, the conversion of a local hotel into an emergency shelter sparked a significant increase in 911 calls to the site, while adding 60 children to the school district. Plus, Taunton has lost out on hotel excise taxes for the only hotel in town, O’Connell said. (The state reimburses school districts that take in homeless children, and beginning in the spring, will also reimburse some that report losing tax revenue due to hosting an emergency shelter.)

In Quincy, where roughly 60 families are being temporarily housed at an overflow shelter, Mayor Thomas Koch said the site has worked out better than some residents had expected. However, he said Quincy can hardly keep up with building affordable housing for its residents, let alone others.

He suggested the state reward communities for “doing their part” by providing additional local aid. Otherwise, lower-income municipalities will continue to feel unduly burdened, he said.

“There are folks who live in some communities who don’t have to deal with this stuff because it’s affluent and away from the T, the bus line,” Koch said. “If more communities did their part, there would be less pressure and stress.”

Worcester Mayor Joe Petty, whose city currently has more than 300 families in the emergency shelter system, said he is concerned “we will run out of space.”

“You have people working every day trying to provide for the more vulnerable,” he said. “Other towns and cities can step up and share responsibility.”

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Concern over whether the shelter crisis is not being shared equally resurfaced last week, when the state began moving migrant families into a community center in Roxbury, displacing popular activities and programs in a predominantly Black Boston neighborhood.

As of Jan. 29, 1,300 homeless and migrant families were staying in hotels, motels, or shelters in Boston, by far the most of any Massachusetts municipality.

”What I’m hoping is the mayor and the governor and my colleagues in government start to identify and propose other places immediately,” said state Senator Liz Miranda, a Roxbury Democrat. “This is an emergency for every single one of us.”

Of the roughly 7,500 families in the state system, about half are migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers, state officials have said. The other half are Massachusetts residents.

According to the Globe analysis, 51 percent of municipalities sheltering migrant families have median household incomes between $50,000 and $100,000.

The picture is incomplete, however, because the Healey administration only reports data on state-run emergency shelters to the Legislature. Not included are the roughly half-dozen overflow shelters, such as the site in Roxbury. These sites serve as waystations for hundreds of eligible families and pregnant women who are on waiting lists for existing emergency shelters after Healey installed a cutoff in November of 7,500 families.

State data indicate 7,523 families are currently living in emergency shelters across the state.

Overflow shelter sites are typically meant to serve as temporary stopgaps for families waiting to enter the official shelter system, though children living in Roxbury and Cambridge shelters are being enrolled in local schools.

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The system is still at capacity, according to state data. As of Monday, there were 692 families on the state’s waitlist for shelter, far more than can be accommodated at the overflow shelters, which include a college dorm in Quincy, a former courthouse in Cambridge, and the Roxbury recreation center.

While the locations of the shelters give some local leaders heartburn, those providing shelter services say that, ultimately, building more affordable housing is key to alleviating the strain on the shelter system.

And that will take all communities committing to solving the problem, one advocate said, by building housing and getting cities and towns to comply with the MBTA communities law, which aims to address the regional housing crisis by requiring municipalities to make it easier to develop apartments and condos.

“We are in this crisis for both the migrants and other families because of the lack of affordable housing,” said Leah Bradley, executive director of the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance, which shelters families in Leicester. “Each of our communities needs to help us through.”

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross. Kirkland An can be reached at kirkland.an@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @kirkland_an