Healey declares state of emergency amid migrant shelter crisis; local communities put on notice that they may need to help




NORTHAMPTON — A growing influx of immigrants has strained state resources and pushed the Massachusetts shelter system to the point that it is reaching capacity, Gov. Maura Healey said Tuesday morning as she declared a state of emergency around the “crisis” situation.

Close to 5,600 families are currently housed in the state’s emergency shelter system, Healey said during a press conference at the State House. This is 80% more than one year ago, she said, and the number can grow by between 10 and 30 families each day.

More than 80 cities and towns across the state are hosting these families, including more than 1,800 families who are living in hotels and motels, according to the governor’s office.

“These numbers are being driven by a surge of new arrivals in our country who’ve been through some of the hardest journeys imaginable. They are the face of the international migrant crisis. They’re here because where they came from is too dangerous to stay there,” Healey said.

The governor delivered an “urgent and formal appeal” to the federal government to “remove barriers and expedite federal work authorizations,” as well as to help fund new shelters.

The emergency declaration could help secure more federal aid for housing and other resources that can move migrants out of temporary shelter into a more permanent situation, said Laurie Millman, executive director of the Center for New Americans in Northampton.

She said the center, which offers classes to migrants and other support such as advice on legal options, has been working with ServiceNet with its caseload of almost 50 Haitian families in Greenfield.

“We created classes for some of the migrants in Greenfield,” Millman said. “They want to work, they want to begin their lives.”

But without resources to secure housing, there is no path forward for them, said Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of the resettlement agency Catholic Charities.

“All resettlement agencies are helping with the movement of migrants from shelter to more permanent housing,” Buckley-Brawner said. “There are not enough immediate resources to serve the number.”

Catholic Charities is contracted to accept and place refugees, who are legal permanent residents in the U.S.

The state is having to look at providing immediate shelter for migrants who do not have legal status here, Buckley-Brawner said, and it has turned to homeless family shelter providers such as ServiceNet. The majority are from Haiti and Central America, she said.

“There are so many displaced people — by far the largest number we have ever known,” Buckley-Brawner said.

ServiceNet runs family shelters in Greenfield and Pittsfield, which are providing space for some migrant families, according to Amy Timmins, vice president of community relations.

The Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities contracted with ServiceNet for case management in early June when it found space for a number of migrant families at the Days Inn in Greenfield.

Massachusetts is the only state in the country with a “right-to-shelter” law, which guarantees homeless families access to emergency shelter.

ServiceNet handles meal deliveries, interpreters and other services for 45 families at the hotel, Timmins said. The Days Inn is one of 40 hotels and motels being used as emergency shelters in Massachusetts.

“The focus is to get people established with permanent housing,” Timmins said, while acknowledging that housing is hard to come by.

The state is continuing to look at possible temporary shelter sites — last month, it considered and then rejected the former Harley-Davidson dealership in Southampton — and ServiceNet is prepared to step up if asked.

“We’d need to look for more staff,” Timmins said.

Both Timmins and Millman said community members, other organizations and municipal governments have shown a willingness to help.

“We’ve not lacked for donations from the community,” Timmins said.

Municipal leaders have been put on notice that their help may be needed to handle the migrant surge, said Alan Wolf, chief of staff for Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra.

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia said last month his city would do its part, but the state would have to “up its game” in terms of support.

“If Holyoke is one of the 70-plus municipalities chosen to shelter migrants — and I have no information whether that will happen — the state needs to know we won’t be able to do it with existing resources,” Garcia said in a statement.

The line item for Emergency Assistance Family Shelters in the fiscal year 2024 budget currently awaiting Healey’s signature — or amendments — appropriates $325 million for the state’s shelter system. This total represents a 48% increase over last year’s shelter funding of $219.4 million.

At the same time, the administration is urging landlords, churches, synagogues, universities, businesses and private residents to open their homes and businesses to help house immigrants.

“This is not a crisis that our family shelter system was designed to handle. For months now, state government and our providers have been doing the work of stretching the system as far as it can safely go. But we really need to bring more people into this work to make it a true team effort,” Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll said. “If you have an extra room or suite in your home, please consider hosting a family. Safe housing and shelter is our most pressing need.”

Healey said the most important thing the federal government could do to help resolve the “crisis” is expediting work authorizations for immigrants.

“People are anxious to work,” she said. “We know there are employers around the state across industries who are looking for that workforce.”

James Pentland can be reached at [email protected]

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