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Emergency overflow shelter for migrants opens in Roxbury against backdrop of concern

By Leia Green and Gia Shin

Migrant families who have been sleeping at Logan International Airport began moving to a recreation center in Roxbury on Wednesday, sparking questions and concern from the Roxbury community.

Cots set up in the Melnea Cass Recreational Complex in Roxbury for migrants who have been sleeping on the floor of Logan International Airport. This recreation center is the fourth overflow center to open in Massachusetts within the last two months due to the state’s shelter system being at full capacity. MATTHEW EADIE/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

With the Massachusetts shelter system at full capacity, the Melnea Cass Recreational Complex is the fourth overflow site to open in the state since early December. Mayor Michelle Wu and Gov. Maura Healey toured the shelter on Wednesday while Roxbury residents gathered outside.

“We’re here today because we really don’t have a choice,” Healey said during a press conference at the Cass center. “We’re here because we need to make sure we have a place for people to go safely.”

The decision to use the Cass was made in the shadow of the ongoing migrant crisis in Mass., a state many people turned to when it stood as the only state with a right to shelter law. However, the 7,500 household limit Healey instituted in November has closed doors for many in the months since, leaving about 2,000 people currently on the waitlist for housing, according to CBS news.

Though some who gathered outside the center voiced anti-migrant sentiments, many were Roxbury residents who worried about the immediate impact this would have in their community, a neighborhood suffering from a history of racism and disinvestment.

“This is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city… they’ve taken away a facility that people used to exercise, elderly people, they run track in here for the young kids, they have events in this hall … now they’ve got nowhere to go,” Roxbury resident Mickey Williams said.

Healey said she has urgently requested funding at the federal level, as her administration estimates the strain on the state’s shelter system will cost Massachusetts $900 million this fiscal year, according to WBUR.

“I continue to call on Congress to act,” Healey said. “President Biden has put forward a plan that would  both address the border issues, make changes to the asylum process and importantly, provide funding to states like Massachusetts who are having to bear … responsibility and cost.”

75 people were expected to arrive at the new center this evening, with more to follow in coming days. Healey said the facility can house up to 400 people.

Governor Maura Healey speaks at a press conference in the recreation center. Healey called on Congress to act and requested federal funding as her administration estimates the strain on the state’s shelter system will cost $900 million dollars this fiscal year. MATTHEW EADIE/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

Fernando, a 31-year-old mechanic from Chile, was one of the people sleeping on the floor of Terminal E at Logan Airport.

“It’s hard to find a place to live when you don’t have enough money or papers,” he said. “It’s hard to live here. We first got to Quincy, and there wasn’t enough space for us.”

He described the sleeping situation at Logan Airport as “bad because of the cold,” and expressed concern for his child, who is 22 months old.

On Jan. 23, WBZ reported an estimated 100 people were sleeping in Logan Airport, with Mass. state police being paid overtime to assist overnight. They continued to arrive each night despite being informed that the airport was not a shelter, according to the Boston Globe. 

The Cass center opening was met with a mixed reaction from Roxbury residents, some of whom rallied outside the center chanting “Shame on Wu” and “Shame on Healey.” Others showed up in hopes to learn more about the decision and how it would impact their lives.

Ayanna Hines said she came to the Cass center on Wednesday because her daughter will be unable to continue her tennis program at the center. Hines was not opposed to the community center being used to house migrants, but felt “caught off-guard” by how suddenly these changes were implemented.

“There was a meeting on Friday to have community input. Meanwhile, this decision had already been made,” she said. “I think had the steps been … more genuine, then it wouldn’t be an issue.”

“We’re not against the immigrants … all of us in some way are immigrants ourselves,” Roxbury resident Clifton A. Braithwaite said. “But … if you have two children and you show more compassion to one child, the other child is going to be a little bit upset.”

Picket signs outside the Melnea Cass Recreational Complex. Roxbury community members have had mixed reactions to Healey’s decision to convert the recreation center into a shelter. MATTHEW EADIE/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

Wu said that virtual meetings were held with Roxbury residents on Friday, Sunday and Monday nights to discuss the decision.

“This is very rapidly unfolding, and in large part driven by unpredictable numbers … and the need that became very visible in the airport and in other locations,” Wu said.

In response to concerns over the bandwidth of the city, Wu said “Boston always does more than [its] fair share.”

“This is a big sacrifice that this community is taking on and we have heard nothing but a desire from residents to take care of people,” she said. “There is pain and recognition that this is not the first time that this community has been asked to sacrifice over and over again.”

Some, however, do feel that the amenities the Cass provides — “there are showers, there are bathrooms,” said Audra White, a resident from Highland Park — make it a better alternative to an airport.

“I think people deserve something better than Logan,” White said.

But White she wondered if there weren’t better options than a “gym,” asking why other sites such as Lemuel Shattack hospital aren’t being used.

All impacted programs at the Roxbury community center will be relocated, and the Cass center is expected to reopen to the community after renovations by June 20, according to state Sen. Liz Miranda.

“A top priority for us in this work is to make sure that every program finds a new home on a temporary basis,” Healey said.

Both Wu and Healey said they will continue to demand federal funding. Wu visited Washington on Tuesday to meet with the US Department of Homeland Security and urge funding and support for Boston’s growing migrant population, according to the Boston Globe.

“It’s important that people understand that migrant families are families who have entered [into] this country lawfully. So unfortunately we hear really denigrating language – people speaking about others in ways that are… factually wrong,” Healey said in response to widespread claims that people residing in Logan arrived illegally. “We have certain legal obligations here that we’re trying to meet.”

Healey added that the state will turn to local vendors and service providers for shelter necessities including food, laundry and transportation.

“Their stories are the same as ours,” Wu said of migrant families in Wednesday’s press conference. “People who just want to try and give their kids a chance and a better life, and we are a little bit stuck in a system where the federal machinery needs a lot of fixing.”

 

Matthew Eadie, Sebastian Castro and Anna Rubenstein contributed to the reporting of this article.

One Comment

  1. I am not against helping people. It does appear that some of the anger spurs from that fact that residents believe that the goverment does not spring to action for it’s current residents. There is homelessness and drug problems right up the street on Mass & Cass yet it seems to the population of that commumity that those issues aren’t being addresses with as much urgency. So some Roxbury residents are feeling like what about us. That sentiment has not been addressed by the govenor or mayor.