Protesters Ask Massachusetts Governor and Boston Mayor Why Roxbury Community Center Has To Shelter Illegal Immigrants

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Protesters greeted Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Wednesday as they toured a Roxbury community center that is being converted into temporary housing to make room for more homeless families who are eligible for shelter services.

About a dozen protesters, some of whom were Roxbury residents, were outside the recreation center with signs that said “Boston’s Full” and “Why Roxbury? Try Wellesley.”

“Shame on Healey,” “Shame on Wu” protestors with megaphones chanted.

The Healey administration was scheduled to open the center on Wednesday, January 31. Healey capped shelter capacity at 7,500 families in November 2023 but her team has been opening new temporary sites to accommodate more families.

Of the 650-plus families standing by on a waitlist for beds to open up, the center will house 100 families temporarily.

As of Monday, January 29, about half of the families staying in the state’s emergency assistance family shelter system were immigrants coming from other countries. Healey, Wu, and Roxbury politicians state Senator Liz Miranda, Boston city councilor Tania Fernandes-Anderson, and state Representative Chyna Tyler said they understood the Roxbury residents’ concerns, but they were grateful for the community members who welcomed the homeless families.


“I want to begin with gratitude to the Roxbury community, to all our elected officials, the service providers. It’s been a lot of conversations — a lot of hard conversations and a lot of collaboration,” Healey said.

Reports surfaced last week of dozens of families sleeping on the floor of Logan Airport’s Terminal E.  State Emergency Assistance director Scott Rice said the safety-net shelter site at the Cass Recreation Center will help serve “especially those who have been sleeping at Logan Airport.”

“Last night I was over at Logan Airport,” Healey said during a press conference at the rec center on Wednesday. “I saw a number of families who were there, many of whom had been back for a second, third, fourth or fifth, or a week-long stay at Logan Airport on the tile floor. With 2, 3, 4-year-olds with them. And all they have is to lay on a blanket that they lay out for the evening, and then take in the morning.”

Wu said she frequently hears from mayors around the country who are dealing with the influx of immigrants into their state.

“We know that Boston has always been a place, Roxbury has always been a place, that steps up. And we are proud that in the midst of this national crisis, in the midst of this statewide crisis, the city of Boston continues to set the standard for what it means to deliver resources and do our part,” Wu said.

The Melnea Cass Recreation Center is scheduled to stop functioning as a shelter by May 31 and reopen as a recreation center and public pool, according to administration officials. Up to 400 individuals, or about 100 families, will be able to receive food, security, and legal, medical, and transportation services while the facility is in use as an overflow site.

The center usually hosts community programs, including athletic clubs and swimming lessons, and is a hub for senior citizens in the neighborhood. The administration has said the programs usually hosted in the center will be relocated for the coming months.

Asked by a reporter about initial resistance to Healey’s proposal to use the center in Roxbury, Wu said “There are no good options.”

“The governor made her decision,” Wu said, adding that now it is the responsibility of the city to make sure “this is as smooth as possible and that the families who are coming here have what they need.”

While homeless families are staying in the center, they will have food provided by local vendors. Tyler said that including small businesses from the community “changes the narrative” and makes “sure we stimulate the economic community in Roxbury.”

The Healey administration has also committed to refurbishing and upgrading the facility.

“They have committed to the safety-net shelter closing by May 31, so that this pool and this center will look brand new by just June 20. And they’ve committed to the necessary upgrades to this facility that we’ve been asking for — as a former member of Friends of the Cass for decades Plus, we can center humanity and dignity both of our community here and the members in need and those in crisis coming from political turmoil they had no choice but to run from,” Miranda said.

Protesters outside the recreation center on Wednesday argued that Roxbury already has challenges and is underserved by state and city government, and is being asked to sacrifice an important part of their community.

“When I get a call from 150 families with 200 children and over 300 seniors, where are we going to go? I’m coming to speak for the unheard voices,” said community activist and former candidate for Boston city council Clifton Braithwaite.

Braithwaite said he doesn’t want the homeless families sleeping out in the cold, but is concerned about the people who rely on the community center.

“We try to place troubled youth in an area where they’re comfortable. Now, you’re going to take people from Roxbury to Dorchester where the kid might not feel safe traveling? There’s anxiety to even get some of these kids out, some of the elders out to just enjoy life,” he said. 

Mark Martinez, a Roxbury resident and housing staff attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which has advocated for supporting shelter services, said he supports using the center to house families.

“There’s no ideal situation,” Martinez said. “People are sleeping on the floor of the airport right now. The fact that we need overflow sites is a problem, and the Cass is not a permanent solution. They’ve made it clear that it’s not a permanent solution. But there also isn’t one right now.”

He said it was a “Band-Aid,” but “we have the opportunity to help people.”

Martinez added that there have been a lot of people in the neighborhood vocal about wanting to help, and emphasized that the administration promised “to make a better Cass, a better resource for the community” by the end of it.

“I think the other thing that’s important, we keep on talking about this as a migrant crisis, about migrants and immigrants coming in. But it’s not just immigrants. I don’t think I need to remind anybody, but we’re also in the middle of a housing crisis, right? Evictions are at levels higher than we’ve seen in a really long time. And so more and more people from here, from Massachusetts, from Boston, from Roxbury, in particular, are also needing shelter also need access to these services,” Martinez said. “For me, I don’t think that distinction should matter. But if we’re going to talk about this problem, we’ve got to talk about it truthfully.”

Miranda encouraged other communities around the state to also step up to house people. Just less than 100 of Massachusetts’s 351 cities and towns are currently hosting families in emergency shelter.

“I wholeheartedly understand that our community has been asked to sacrifice a great deal. We have our own unique challenges,” Miranda said.

She later continued:  “Roxbury is doing their part. I would ask all my elected officials who represent the other 350 cities and towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to step up and do their part. This is our shared humanity.”

Melnea Cass Recreation Center in Roxbury normally hosts local activities, but on Wednesday, January 31, 2024 it had beds waiting for illegal immigrants. State House News Service photo by Same Drysdale.


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