The State’s refugee crisis is expanding across Metrowest, and Hopkinton’s Board of Health is working overtime to keep up with demand.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Director Shaun McAullife.
In 1983, shortly after Governor Michael Dukakis was sworn in, he signed what became known as the “right-to-shelter” law. Massachusetts is the only state in the nation that requires officials to quickly provide shelter and other necessities to homeless parents with children, pregnant women, and now, the large influx of migrant families arriving in Massachusetts. Forty years later, this legislation has pushed the the system of shelters to the breaking point, prompting Governor Maura Healey to declare a State of Emergency on August 8. “The state does not have enough shelter, space, service, providers, or funding to safely expand beyond 7500 families,” Healey said.
There are currently 7,543 families in emergency shelter, constituting more that 23,000 individuals, according to Lt. General Scott Rice, the state’s emergency assistance Director.
State law defines refugees as people who are “unable or unwilling to return to, [or are] unable or unwilling to avail [themself] of the protection of their country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
State officials estimate that as many has half of the migrants have come from Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and one that has been rocked by political instability and natural disasters for decades. Other refugees are arriving from Ukraine, Russia and parts of Africa.
Massachusetts taxpayers are spending more than $45 million per month to house homeless residents and refugees in existing shelters as well as hotels across the Commonwealth. Large numbers of refugees are now living within miles of Hopkinton, with families housed in Westborough, Milford, Northborough, Marlborough and Framingham. Director McAullife says there are also refugees living in Hopkinton, sheltering with family members, and in some cases, living in cars. The state’s Emergency Assistance family shelter program website shows a real-time map of where refugees are currently living.
The process for setting up housing is anything but seamless. According to several local health directors we interviewed, state officials will typically provide 30-minute notice to the community leaders that they will be dropping families off, often as many as 100 people at a time. It is then on the local health department to coordinate with the town’s emergency manager (typically the fire chief) and Youth & Family services. While the state picks up the tab for the hotel, municipal funds are used to purchase the food and goods to get the families settled.
But towns typically don’t operate large scale food service operations to meet this type of demand, so the responsibility is falling to individuals, local food banks and churches. “Some of our refugee families are walking in the door with flip-flops on,” said Cherylann Lambert Walsh, President of Project Just Because. “They are from warm climates and have never experienced anything like a New England winter.”
Stretched to capacity, neighboring Health Directors have contacted Hopkinton for assistance. Working with nonprofit partners in the community, Director McAullife and his team scrambled to provide the food, water and clothing these families need. At the middle school, McAuliffe created a program to recover leftover breakfast items from the Free & Reduced lunch program that would typically go to waste. That food is now being transported to Project Just Because for delivery to needy families, and they have recovered more than 500 pounds of food already. The school district often has leftover prepared food, such as pizzas, that McAuliffe is working to get sent to the YMCA for their after-school program.
Beyond food, the Hopkinton BOH is providing COVID and Influenza vaccines, and immunizations for children so they can attend school. Over the past year, the BOH has distributed $405,000 worth of COVID test kits, with 95% going to Hopkinton residents. The kits were donated by the state.
In Northborough, Health Director Kristin Black highlighted several recent success stories. Their emergency shelter opened on July 25, and according to Black, 90% of the residents are originally from Haiti. Thirty of them are under the age of 18, and many have come from small villages.
“It’s not glamorous work, but I’m very proud of what we are doing as a community to enrich their lives and make them successful,” said Black.
Because the hotel has no place to cook, the Northborough BOH is providing two meals per day and have coordinated with the National Guard, who is onsite to schedule transportation and ensure food is delivered. Prepared meals are coming from an organization in Boston.
Hopkinton has been there when Northborough needed it, said Black. “They magically showed up with boxes of new shoes and clothing right before school started,” she said. “What we didn’t use we sent to the shelter in Sutton, and they sent the remaining items further west. We called it the Shoe Train.” Behind the scenes, this effort was coordinated by McAullife and Lambert Walsh, who also supplemented Northborough families with a coat drive.
Clearing the legal obstacles to allow refugees to work is a top priority for Director Black. “These people really want to work, to support their family and to start rebuilding their lives,” said Black. The biggest obstacle is navigating the legal process to get the necessary work permits. Recently, Black and her staff coordinated an information session to teach residents how to apply for work permits. All 70 adults in the shelter attended and applied. Permits are now coming in every day, and two residents have been hired at the hotel housing the refugees.
Black’s department is also providing English language learning classes, and has coordinated with their local YMCA to plan holiday parties for the families. “The YMCA has been a tremendous partner, opening up their facility to offer family memberships,” she said.
Contrary to some national narratives that the influx of migrants has created a crime wave, this is decidedly not the case in Northborough. “The police department reports far fewer calls to that location than before,” said Black. “These are families who put their kids to bed by 8:00”.
“No one would choose this kind of life unless they were escaping an unsafe situation, and it was perilous journey to get here. You only do that when you’re desperate,” said Black.
Director McAuliffe made a point to highlight his team at the Health Department. “We are blessed to have such an incredibly caring staff,” he said. “They are the right people working for the right reasons.”