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Brazilian Worker Center provides support for migrant families with the help of the community

Since Allston’s Brazilian Worker Center began housing migrant families in June of last year, restaurants, hotels, nonprofits and private individuals throughout Greater Boston have helped the center provide assistance for migrant families in the community. 

The Brazilian Worker Center in Allston. The BWC has provided housing to migrant families since June of last year with the support of other non-profits throughout Boston. MOLLY POTTER/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

Last summer, the Healey-Driscoll administration designated the BWC as the state’s first “Family Welcome Center,” to serve as a “central entry point for families, especially immigrant families, struggling to access basic necessities, connecting them with essential supplies, services, and transportation to a safe place to stay,” according to a press release from her office.

Since then, the center has become a part of the crisis across the state, which has struggled to accommodate increasing numbers of migrant families. Lenita Reason, the executive director of the center, attributed the care the BWC is able to provide to a network of support throughout the community. 

Reason said after being designated as a Family Welcome Center, or FWC, the state initially installed agents from the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, or DTA, at the BWC to support them with assisting migrants.

Today, there are no longer any DTA agents operating out of the BWC, Reason said, and the BWC now directs migrant families to a DTA office in Quincy.

Reason said the BWC has been seeing about 18 families every day, many of which come from an overnight shelter the state opened out of the Registry of Deeds building in East Cambridge. 

“They don’t have a place to go, [so] they come here,” said Reason. “They know us.”

Reason said the BWC is still helping people get on the state waitlist for shelter, as well as providing lunch and other basic needs.

“Many of the families have young kids, so we provide diapers, hygiene kits, baby formulas, baby food,” said Reason. “We check with the state where they should go for the night.”

Reason said that BWC still has a contract with the state until March 31, which gives them a reimbursement for certain supplies. She said that the center has relied on the Greater Boston community to support other aspects of the care they provide, such as occasional hotels for families in need of housing. 

Arbella Insurance, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Boston Medical Center are among the organizations that have provided financial or material support to the BWC, according to Reason. Additionally, the BWC has cooperated with hotels and restaurants around Greater Boston to help keep migrant families housed and fed. 

Sarah Bartley, who leads Safe & Stable Housing at United Way of Massachusetts Bay, said that when Governor Healey announced the state of emergency last August due to the rapidly rising number of migrant families, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and the Boston Foundation raised more than $1.3 million to distribute to nonprofits, including the BWC. 

“We wanted to build the capacity of organizations that were stepping up in such significant ways to … be able to give people access to all kinds of the programs and services they need,” Bartley said. “We really wanted to support the Brazilian Worker Center.”

Lorrayne Reiter, immigrant’s rights defense project coordinator for the BWC, said she books hotels for migrant families to stay in through Hotel Engine, a third-party booking service. Some hotels have welcomed migrant families with open arms, others haven’t.

“There [were] some cases [that] some hotels, since June last year and even still … that often call us back and say ‘please don’t send them anymore, we don’t want to house migrants anymore,’” said Reiter. “Of course, we know that’s pretty much discrimination, and we’re not going to keep choosing those hotels [that] don’t feel comfortable in receiving, because we don’t want an argument with them.” 

While some hotels have refused to help house migrants, there are private individuals around Greater Boston who have been working with the BWC to host migrant families in their own homes, Reason said. 

Restaurants around Greater Boston have made arrangements with the BWC to help keep migrant families fed, such as a Brazilian restaurant in Everett.

“We pay them once a week and they bring the meals every day,” Reason said. “We just tell them how many families we have.”

Not everyone appreciates the work the BWC does supporting migrant families. Reason said the BWC receives hateful messages through email, social media and voicemails on a regular basis, with some containing violent threats. 

Perhaps, those who appreciate BWC’s work  the most are the migrants themselves.

Roberto Vincent, a man from Haiti who immigrated to the United States last May and now works at the BWC, credits his employer for helping him provide shelter for his family when he first arrived in Boston.

“For me, it’s a marvelous story,” Vincent said in Spanish.

Vincent said he dreams of his children getting a good education and that he’s found a calling working at the BWC. 

“My heart is there in the Brazilian Worker Center, I don’t want to leave,” Vincent said in Spanish.

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