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Immigration advocates welcome new shelter in Mass., but say more help is needed

A plan to house migrants in a temporary shelter at a former Army base in Devens, Massachusetts, would provide needed support to a system strained by a recent influx of immigrants, advocates say, but it won’t be enough to address the rise in demand.

“The increased number of immigrants coming to Massachusetts has placed a heavier than expected burden on the state and the state partners,” said Elizabeth Sweet, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “As we know, housing is in short supply across Massachusetts and is sorely needed … in emergency situations for immigrants.”

The Devens temporary shelter, announced on Tuesday by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, will serve as an intake facility. Immigrants there will be able to access centralized services like assistance with finding housing, and, if they are eligible, enrolling in state benefits. The site is expected to open in early December and remain open for at least four months.

A maximum of 60 families or 125 individuals would be allowed to stay for three to five days, after which they’d be transferred to another emergency housing facility, or possibly permanent housing, according to the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. The office says in addition to immigrants’ needs, it has been seeing more demand for shelter from families facing homelessness as well as fewer families exiting the system because of high housing costs.

Sweet said migrants are coming to Massachusetts from several different countries, in particular Haiti, Venezuela and Brazil.

“They’re coming here to seek asylum and seeking to escape incredibly difficult conditions in those countries,” said Sweet.

The increased demand for shelter comes not only from newly arrived migrants, but also from Massachusetts families experiencing homelessness. Hitting shelter capacity means some families have had to be placed in hotels and motels around the state, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Dinanyili Paulino, who works for the Chelsea-based social services organization La Colaborativa, said the Devens shelter “is a very small part of the solution.” In the last two weeks alone, she said 15 newly homeless families have approached La Colaborativa for help. That includes people who recently immigrated to the country and residents who’ve lost jobs.

“Unless the state is looking at this as a pilot program, this won’t stop the need for more shelter,” said Paulino.

While acknowledging the need for shelter, advocates like Sweet and Paulino expressed concern that Devens is remote and worried whether migrants would be connected to established service providers with relevant experience.

“Particularly in the cases of newly arrived immigrant families, cultural and linguistic competence are key to serving these families effectively,” said Paulino.

On Friday, Gov. Baker asked the Legislature to approve $139 million in emergency spending to expand emergency shelter capacity and called the current situation a “humanitarian crisis.” Baker said the state’s emergency assistance system was already at 100% capacity, and expected migrant arrivals to increase over the coming months.

“Massachusetts’ emergency shelter system provides support for thousands of families each year, but a recent uptick in new migrant arrivals, coupled with a strained housing market have led to a need for greater capacity across the system,” said Baker in his letter to the Legislature.

Baker said the unprecedented need was “unfortunately driven by the federal government’s inability to address our country’s immigration challenges.”

In addition to funding the temporary center, the requested funding is expected to add more than 1,300 temporary shelter units, and includes $37 million to support costs for placing new migrant students in local schools through the 2024 school year.

Baker’s bill has gone to the House Committee on Ways and Means, where there’s no guarantee of swift passage.

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