Massachusetts is in the midst of an emergency shelter crisis driven mostly by an influx of migrant families. But not every city and town has been chipping in equally to host emergency shelters.
A Globe analysis found that wealthier cities and towns have largely avoided the brunt of the growing crisis. Out of the nearly 100 communities that have 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,” according to Globe reporters Samantha J. Gross and Kirkland An.
Because the demand for shelter beds has outpaced the supply — remember the dozens of migrant adults and children who slept on the floor at Logan Airport because there was no shelter space for them? — state officials recently decided to convert a state-run community center in Roxbury into a temporary facility to house these migrant families, which quickly sparked controversy. “Boston is full, our kids come last,” read a protester’s sign.
Why should Roxbury, a predominantly Black, low-income community that has historically lacked enough investment, step up if wealthier communities haven’t? That glaring disparity prompted state Senator Liz Miranda of Boston to call for “the mayor and the governor and my colleagues in government” to “identify and propose other places immediately.”
But the narrative that wealthier communities don’t want to help is incomplete.
Some Wellesley residents want their local government to do more. “We have money to spend on lots of things that are so irrelevant,” an individual who has lived in Wellesley for almost a decade told me. They did not want to be identified but believe it’s doable for Wellesley to offer a facility — the town’s recreation center, for example, which is underutilized, the person said — as a temporary overflow shelter for migrant families. “We just hired a consultant from Arlington to tell us how to talk to each other.” The individual was referring to a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative Wellesley undertook recently.
It’s a good point. What is a better example of inclusion in practice than a town opening its facility as refuge for migrant families in need?
Regina LaRocque, a member of Wellesley’s Town Meeting and a professor at Harvard Medical School, agrees. “We are dealing with a humanitarian crisis here in Massachusetts and all of our communities should be stepping up to meet the needs of people arriving as migrants.”
This humanitarian crisis is unprecedented. There is no state policy playbook for what to do. The state’s strategy has been to first rely on hotels and motels to offer emergency shelter for families. Then the state looked at its own properties across the Commonwealth to use as overflow facilities and is also counting on the help of nonprofit partners like United Way.
To be clear, I am not singling out Wellesley for any reason other than I happened to hear about these residents’ informal efforts to do more during the crisis. Nor does this mean that their town has outright rejected hosting homeless migrant families. Meghan Jop, Wellesley’s executive director of general government services, said in a statement that “Wellesley has not been contacted by State officials about the emergency shelter crisis.” She added that there aren’t any hotels or motels in the town that could be used to house families. There are higher education institutions in town — Babson College and Wellesley College — but they are privately owned. “We will certainly engage with the State should they reach out to us.”
A spokesperson for Governor Maura Healey’s executive office of housing and livable communities told me there are parameters the state considers when assessing overflow shelter space, such as a quick timeline to open, proximity to public transportation and social services, and access to bathrooms and showers, among others. The spokesperson said that should a community like Wellesley want to offer a facility like its recreation center that it would certainly be considered. (Notably, Wellesley has three MBTA commuter rail stops.)
Who knows, maybe there are Wellesley residents who would reject using a local community space to shelter migrants. Two recent polls show the degree of division among Massachusetts voters when it comes to the state’s approach to the influx of migrants. A Fiscal Alliance Foundation poll found that 53.3 percent of respondents opposed using tax dollars to provide shelter to migrants, while a Suffolk University poll found that 48.9 percent of respondents expressed support for the governor’s decision to move migrants from Logan Airport to the Roxbury recreation center (40.3 percent said they opposed it while 10 percent were undecided).
But if Wellesley took in even a few dozen homeless migrant families through, say, a pilot program operated in collaboration with the state or even a nonprofit, the town would be setting a good example that may prompt other suburban towns to follow. It would send a welcoming message but also one of solidarity and support to other communities that have been assuming the financial costs of sheltering migrants.