Advocates scramble to aid homeless migrant families after Massachusetts caps emergency shelter slots

BOSTON (AP) -- Advocates scrambling to find shelter for homeless migrant families newly arrived in Massachusetts say they're relying on a patchwork of airport lounges, Uber rides, hospital waiting rooms and walk-in church shelters after the state capped the number of family shelter spots and created a wait list.

The cap has tied the hands of those trying to help families seeking refuge from increasingly cold nights, dumping those families on a kind of emergency housing merry-go-round as they wait for spaces in the state's family shelter system to open up.

"Right now there's no place to send them," Cherlin Dubon, a triage case specialist at La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts said of homeless families seeking a safe place to stay.

"What was not done right was having a plan," she said. "They could have done better."

To help one family, Dubon relied on multiple Uber rides to a church in Natick, about 28 miles from the agency, located in Chelsea. At Logan International Airport state police and airport staff have used airport buses and taxi vouchers to transport families to one of the state's welcome centers for the homeless.

Gov. Maura Healey, who instituted the cap, said the state is working with local groups to provide temporary spaces for those on the wait list. The cap took effect last week when the state crossed a threshold set by Healey of 7,500 families in emergency shelters.

The administration has been reluctant to release some details of its plan, including the location this week of a clinic it sponsored with the Department of Homeland Security to help speed up the process for migrants to get work authorizations -- the first step to finding a job. More than 200 migrants had work applications submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the clinic.

The spike in shelter demand is being driven in part by migrant families entering the state. About half of the current shelter caseload are new arrivals to the state, according to the administration.

Other states have faced a similar increase in demand for shelter. In New York City Mayor Eric Adams has announced he is limiting shelter stays for migrant families with children to 60 days. In Chicago, officials have looked to relocate migrants seeking asylum from police stations and the city's airports to winterized camps with massive tents.

Healey said Massachusetts is taking other steps to address the shortage of emergency family shelter spots, including teaming up with the United Way of Massachusetts Bay on a $5 million grant program to help local groups open up more temporary overnight family shelter spaces.

"I think we're doing all that we can right now. The key is getting people exited from shelters. That will increase capacity in existing shelter space," she said. "The key really is getting people working."

Rev. Dieufort Fleurissaint, chairman of Haitian Americans United and the senior pastor at Total Health Church in Mattapan, said he was "very concerned" the state had not set up a place for migrants on the waiting list to stay temporarily.

He called on the state to create space at vacant military bases or other locations. He also said the faith-based community was talking about providing space for some families in churches.

"My biggest concern is the safety of these families when they arrive," Fleurissaint said. "The fact they have no family ties, there would be no housing alternative housing for them. We are not in a position as the Haitian community to support those families in terms of housing accommodation."

Since Sept. 1 more than 400 families have exited the emergency family shelter system, opening up those spots for other families. Despite the effort to cycle families out of the shelter system, the newly created wait list is starting to fill up. As of midday on Monday, 22 families were on the list.

On Monday the United Way began accepting applications from community groups to provide immediate emergency shelter for low-income families with children and pregnant individuals as part of the $5 million grant program.

The goal is to provide overflow shelter options -- including in houses of worship, community centers, and school buildings with bedding, showers, meals, laundry, staffing and security.

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are working on a $250 million plan to address the issue of emergency housing with a portion of the funds going for costs associated with sheltering homeless families and creating temporary emergency shelter sites.

Critics have argued Healey's decision to cap shelter placements violates the state's "right-to-shelter" law. Under the four-decade-old law, Massachusetts is legally required to provide emergency shelter to eligible families.

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