Boston’s Mass & Cass Housing In Use As State Seeks Shelter Solution For Illegal Immigrants

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By Sam Drysdale
State House News Service

Massachusetts’s immigration policies have made it a “magnet state” for new arrivals fleeing into the United States and policymakers ought to consider making the state “less attractive,” state Senator Peter Durant (R-Spencer) said Sunday, as a rise in immigration is being felt around the country and becomes one of the top issues of the 2024 presidential election year.

Republicans have proposed amending the state’s right-to-shelter law, a policy which — up until late last year — guaranteed qualifying families housing in the state’s shelter system. Lawmakers proposed changing the law to require that in order to qualify for a spot in state shelters, families have to have been in the state for a period of time ranging from a few months to a few years.

Though the law remains in place and untouched, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey, a Democrat, capped the number of families guaranteed shelter at 7,500 last November, as the emergency housing system buckled under the weight of tens of thousands of new entrants, largely driven by new immigrants leaving war-torn or financially unstable countries.

Durant, a newly-elected Republican senator from Spencer, said on WCVB’s On the Record on Sunday, February 11 that the right-to-shelter law is attracting more immigrants into Massachusetts than other states in the country, none of which have the same legal requirement.

“It’s about making Massachusetts less attractive for those crossing the border,” Durant said.

“You cross the border in Texas or New Mexico, wherever you happen to be, you’re greeted by a bunch of NGO’s — nongovernmental organizations — that say, ‘Where do you want to go? You can pick a state, say, South Dakota, that doesn’t have any benefits. Or we can send you to Massachusetts where you get free housing, free health care, free food, free education, cash benefits. Where would you like to go?’ ”

WCVB political reporter and co-host Sharman Sacchetti pointed out that the governor has capped the number of families it will shelter.

“Well, I mean, she said that we’re going to have no more than 7,500 families, yet we just filled up the Melnea Cass arena, and now we’re looking at space in Fort Point. So I don’t think it’s — I don’t think we can trust the governor in some of the things she’s saying,” Durant said.

The state closed the Melnea Cass Recreational Complex in Roxbury for community programming earlier this month to temporarily convert it into an overflow shelter with 100 beds for families placed on a waitlist for more permanent shelter. The decision was met with mixed reactions from the neighborhood’s residents.

State officials have said they’re looking into the Fort Point area of Boston near the Seaport District for the next overflow shelter.

Converting the Roxbury community center to an overflow housing site was the first time statewide that a building already in use has been tapped for shelter, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said on another Sunday show, as a guest on @Issue on NBC Boston.

Boston had been doing its own search for space that could be turned into shelter for the growing population of homeless individuals in the city, mainly concentrated around the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue in the South End.

“We in some ways have already been doing this search ourselves for the last two years as we’ve been primarily addressing Mass and Cass., the type of homelessness that’s often connected to substance use that local municipalities are often uniquely responsible for,” Wu said.

She added that Boston serves the whole state in helping house this population, many of whom come from other parts of the state into the capital for services related to drug use.

“We had identified every single vacant school building, other city building, much of it was put to service to address that larger crisis of individual adult homelessness and substance use as well, we’ve been seeing some major progress there,” the mayor said.

Over the last year and a half, the city opened nearly 200 units of low-threshold housing — spaces that provide counseling and case management services for people with histories of substance use disorder or who are chronically homeless. Wu’s administration propped up these shelters as a housing option for people living in tents on the street, before clearing the area around Mass and Cass of homeless encampments.

Now, 25 percent of that previously created low-threshold housing is being used for newly-arrived immigrants through the state-run emergency housing program as the family shelter system has overflowed, Wu said Sunday.

“We’re seeing that impact at all levels,” Wu said.

The mayor added that almost 90 children living in the state’s family shelters have been enrolled in Boston Public Schools. They’ve been connected to schools within walking distance that had empty seats and go to school in cohorts with other children in their same situation.

“They have been getting to school in a walking bus, where everyone kind of holds their hands with their parents and gets to school. There’s been a lot of community support with volunteers and neighbors providing extra clothes for those who might not be prepared for this weather, and other supports for the young people,” she said.


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