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Massachusetts overflow shelters, as seen through one family’s eyes

Middlesex South Registry of Deeds, at 208 Cambridge St. in Cambridge, Mass.
Robin Lubbock
Middlesex South Registry of Deeds, at 208 Cambridge St. in Cambridge, Mass.

In mid-December, John arrived in Massachusetts with a plan.

After fleeing violence in Haiti, and struggling to make ends meet in Chile for eight years, John was on his way to meet up with a friend and start a new life. At Logan Airport, with his wife and young daughter in tow, John called his friend. But there was no answer.

“I called him, but couldn’t find him,” John remembered.

Lost in a foreign land, a taxi driver took John’s family to one of the state’s Family Welcome Centers, which provide resources for new immigrants. The family was deemed eligible for the state-run family shelter system, but quickly learned the system is full. Instead of getting shelter, they were placed on a waitlist that has more than 650 families on it.

Thus started a harrowing saga for the family of three, sleeping on the hard floor at Logan Airport, waiting in long lines to use a bathroom, and failing to access medical care for their daughter who is nearly old enough for preschool but does not yet walk or talk.

Despite having traveled the length of Latin America, John said, he’s never lived in such hard conditions.

“I’m holding on so I don’t cry,” he said, speaking through a Haitian Creole interpreter. “It’s the first time I’ve been in such a situation.” WBUR agreed not to use the family’s full names because they fear losing their spot in a temporary shelter.

For decades, homeless advocates have said Massachusetts set the standard for supporting vulnerable families. But in the past year, family homelessness in the state has surpassed previous records, and the safety net has strained under the pressure. As homeless advocates decried the situation, state officials have opened four overflow sites for families placed on the shelter waitlist. Advocates say the overflow sites are better than sleeping outside, but the services for waitlisted families are far from sufficient. The experience of John’s family captures many of the challenges that families without housing face in Massachusetts.

‘I laid down on the bag, and the baby laid on me’

Soon after arriving at the Family Welcome Center in Quincy, John learned the routine. When the center closed at night, his family — along with more than a 100 other new immigrants — were shuttled to Logan Airport, where they slept at a baggage claim.

Dozens of migrant families sleep at Logan Airport as they wait for permanent shelter.
Gabrielle Emanuel
Dozens of migrant families sleep at Logan Airport as they wait for permanent shelter.

That first night, John said, he used a bag as a pillow.

“I put it on the floor and I laid down on the bag, and the baby laid on me,” he said.

He laid awake as his nearly three-year-old daughter snoozed on his chest. The next day, his priority was to find a blanket to cushion the floor and guard against the cold air.

"I have nothing to blame the government for, I blame myself for everything." - John

After 12 long nights at the airport, John said rumors spread among the migrant families: Immigration agents were coming to find them. John and his wife decided to leave, but they weren’t sure where to go.

Eventually, they got a spot at one of the overflow sites the state has set up for families on the shelter waitlist. Unlike traditional family shelter units in Massachusetts, this overflow site is a congregate setting. John estimates there are between 150 and 200 people sleeping in a shared space.

Once there, John and his wife quickly learned a new routine and plenty of new rules.

The overflow site is only open at night. John said the parents and children are woken up at 5 a.m. John’s family waits at a Family Welcome Center during the day, where there’s food, but no English classes or job training.

The shelter can feel stiflingly hot, John said, but he doesn't leave after hours.

“If it’s after 9 o’clock, you can’t come back because it’s a violation,” he said, and if you miss a night in the shelter, you risking losing your spot for the following night.

Cots set up in the Melnea Cass Recreational Complex for the homeless migrants staying at Logan Airport.
Jesse Costa
Cots set up in the Melnea Cass Recreational Complex for the homeless migrants staying at Logan Airport.

A spokesperson for the state agency overseeing the shelter confirmed lights out is between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., at which point families are asked to be inside the facility. Because demand is so high, any vacant spot will be given to another family, the spokesperson said.

John also learned to plan ahead before going to the bathroom. He said there are just two bathrooms for 200 people.

“You could be the 10th or 20th in line,” he said. The state installed temporary showers a few days ago, several weeks after opening the facility. Before that, if they wanted to shower, John’s family took the train to visit a cousin in a traditional family shelter unit. His family quickly washed up there.

'I blame myself'

For John, one overarching goal has driven all his decisions. “I’m looking for the best for my child. That’s life,” he said.

While he came to Massachusetts seeking more opportunities for her, he's now feeling a growing sense of unease. Glancing down at his daughter, who's bundled in a winter coat as she naps, he said she can’t walk independently and has never said a word — not even “mom” or “dad.” Yet, others her age are running around and speaking in full sentences.

“I don’t know the reason why she has never [spoken],” John said.

He also doesn’t know how to get help. He hoped someone would connect him with medical care, but said he hasn’t been able to reach the caseworker he met at the Quincy Family Welcome Center.

Aura Obando, the medical director for the family team at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, said this family's situation is not outside the norm.

“We definitely see it," she said. "It's not surprising to me, I guess, but it's heartbreaking.”

She pointed to a body of research that shows homeless children have developmental delays and learning disabilities at four times the rate of children who are housed.

"That's why the argument is to really shorten that experience of homelessness," she said, "because a lot of it could be reversed.”

She's particularly concerned about families like John’s, who are waitlisted for shelter and don’t have access to the services that come with a regular shelter placement. "I'm really worried about the overflow space and how long people are going to be in that context," she said.

In her 10 years working in this field, she said she's never seen Massachusetts in such a dire situation. “We're getting a lot of reports about families being outside in the middle of winter," she said. "I never imagined we would be in this space.”

Organizations that operate shelters and provide services for residents have also noted a marked increase in the level of need in families entering the shelter system.

“We do an ‘ages and stages' questionnaire for each of the children coming to our care," said Larry Seamans, CEO of FamilyAid, which operates 150 family shelter units. "Children who are arriving now have lower scores than the children who came say four years ago.”

The result, Seamans said, is staff works harder to help families connect with medical care, and more children are being referred to early intervention, a government program that helps children with developmental and learning delays.

The growing need comes at a time when state resources and community organizations are already stretched thin. Gov. Maura Healey has repeatedly begged the federal government for more help, including funding to support the immigrants arriving in Massachusetts.

"Let me be clear, I continue to call on Congress to act," she said as she toured the Roxbury Recreational Center, which was recently converted to a temporary overflow site.

But John said he doesn’t blame the state or federal governments.

“I blame myself because I'm the one that came. I need to take responsibility,” he said. “I have nothing to blame the government for, I blame myself for everything.”

But now that he and his family are here, he said, he doesn’t know where to go, or what comes next. The only thing he knows is that he will do everything within his power to keep his spot at the overflow shelter.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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