In new strategy, state asks locals to host unhoused, migrant families as officials scramble to expand shelters

The state's new Family Welcome Center is run by the Brazilian Worker Center and located on Harvard Ave. in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The state's new Family Welcome Center is run by the Brazilian Worker Center and located on Harvard Ave. in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Massachusetts officials are seeking residents willing to host newly arrived families in need of shelter. Hosts are asked to provide a room or apartment for a few days, until longer-term accommodations can be arranged.

A significant portion of the families in need of housing in the state are new immigrants. Many of those arriving in Boston have fled violence in Haiti and traveled through other states before coming to Massachusetts.

The new host family strategy comes as the state scrambles to expand shelter capacity and provide for an increasing number of homeless families. The state’s new Family Welcome Center in Allston is tasked with recruiting, vetting and onboarding host families, as well as pairing them with the families in need.

“This has previously been a practice among Resettlement Agencies and other volunteers who work to support new arrivals,” said Karissa Hand, press secretary for the Healey administration, in a statement. Host families are generally drawn from the community and volunteer networks, her statement said.

Those interested in hosting can contact the Brazilian Worker Center, which runs the Allston welcome facility.

The host family model has historically been used to house refugees coming through State Department programs as well as help support unaccompanied minors in need of shelter. However, homeless advocates say it has not been broadly applied to family homelessness in the past.

“The addition of this layer of adding in host homes really seems to be because of the urgency and current unmet needs,” said Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. “This is something that they could get online very quickly if host families and hosts come forward.”

However, Turley warned that this should be a stopgap measure rather than a lasting solution. “We know that longer-term shelter and permanent housing would better meet the stability, safety, and service needs of newly arrived immigrants,” Turley said.

The state did not immediately respond to requests for information about the vetting process for hosts, and whether there are site visits to assess the safety of host's home. The state also did not provide information about how many families have been paired with hosts since the Family Welcome Center opened in late June. Local aid groups tell WBUR that several families have gone to host homes.

Advocates briefed on the program said host families are not compensated financially, but they are provided with things like gift cards, groceries and baby formula to help support the family that’s being hosted.

Geralde Gabeau, the executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute or IFSI, said she supports this strategy “because of the nature of the crisis and because we’re talking about families with children.” But, she said, she would like to see more details about how the program is being operated.

“While the state is trying to figure out exactly what to do and [how] to open up more shelters, I think we as citizens, as members of our community we also need to play a role,” Gabeau said.

A confluence of crises, including the high cost of housing, the end of pandemic eviction protections and the arrival of migrant families, have pushed the existing state-run family shelter system to capacity. Experts estimate hundreds of families are moving to Massachusetts each week in need of housing. Gabeau said IFSI, which serves a large number of Haitians, sees about 40 newly arrived families each day.

The demand for family shelter “is reaching levels we haven’t seen previously,” said the homeless coalition's Turley. Roughly 4,800 households are in the state’s family shelter system, called Emergency Assistance shelter. That includes nearly 1,000 new overflow hotel and motel placements since the beginning of 2023.

A particular challenge for newly homeless families in Massachusetts can be where to stay the first few nights. Applying for the state’s family shelter system can take days or longer, and during that time, families sometimes have nowhere to stay overnight.

“The addition of this layer — of adding in host homes — really seems to be because of the urgency and current unmet needs."

Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless

For over a year, many of these families have turned to emergency rooms where they’ve sometimes slept on lobby floors. However, citing safety concerns and rising numbers, Boston Medical Center said last week that it is now directing families elsewhere, including sending some to Logan airport.

“We were telling people previously, to go to Boston Medical Center because it was the only place for folks to go at night,” said Beth Chambers, vice president of basic needs at Catholic Charities of Boston, speaking on Radio Boston on Thursday. She said since the hospital’s policy has changed, Catholic Charities’ Dorchester office has seen an uptick in demand. “We are trying everything,” she said.

The state’s Family Welcome Center is a new approach to help families particularly newly arrived families get basic needs, such as food and diapers, and connect with other resources. The state has pledged to open additional centers around the state, although specifics have not been made available. Both state officials and homeless advocates describe the Allston center as swamped.

Homelessness experts say because the Family Welcome Center model operates outside of the state’s family shelter system, there are fewer requirements for the accommodations, offering more flexibility, such as the ability to use host homes.

Over the past two years, IFSI has privately arranged host families for at least 25 families in need of housing. Gabeau said the organization’s housing team finds the hosts through known networks such as churches, and then visits the space and meets with the host family.

“Most of the time the problem that we encounter is around the timing,” Gabeau said, noting that it can be disruptive for families to move frequently, but host homes sometimes cannot support a family for more than a few days, weeks or months. She said ideally, a family would be able to stay in one place for six months or longer.

Gabeau said she often sees an uptick in new arrivals in the summer months, particularly in July and August, and she expects this year to be the same. She said the response will require the mobilization of individuals as well as nonprofits and government agencies.

“As individuals, as community members, I believe we can do so much more,” Gabeau said.

This article was originally published on July 15, 2023.


Gabrielle Emanuel Senior Health and Science Reporter
Gabrielle Emanuel is a senior health and science reporter for WBUR.



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