PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When Catholic Charities Boston president and CEO Kelley Tuthill considers new Massachusetts shelter capacity limits that go into effect next month, she said she thinks about a situation that arose on Sunday, Oct. 15, when three families showed up unannounced seeking help.
With their own shelter at capacity, Tuthill said they weren’t able to house the family but provided them with alternative options, including nearby welcome centers and a list of emergency shelters. But the question on the mind of Tuthill, and the heads of other Massachusetts Catholic organizations, is what happens on Nov. 1, when capacity is reached and those alternatives are full as well?
“We’re particularly concerned about what happens on Nov. 1,” Tuthill told The Tablet. “What happens? It keeps you up at night because we’re here to serve and to welcome and I don’t know how we’re going to do that. I don’t know what we’re going to tell people, and our teams are very concerned about that, and sick about it because there’s no clear path.”
Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey announced Oct. 16 that by the end of the month the state will no longer be able to add additional units to its emergency shelter system for families experiencing homelessness. According to the announcement, the state will only be able to accommodate 7,500 families or approximately 24,000 individuals.
The state will likely reach that number by the end of the month, according to the announcement. As of Oct. 16, there were nearly 7,000 families in emergency shelters, including newly arrived migrant families and longtime Massachusetts residents, and about half of those in the emergency shelters are children.
“For months now, we have been expanding shelter capacity at an unsustainable rate to meet rising demand,” Healey said. “Despite the heroic work of public officials, shelter providers, and the National Guard, we have reached a point where we can no longer safely or responsibly expand.
“We will continue to help families exit shelter and move into more permanent housing options, connect those who are eligible with work opportunities to support their families, and advocate for the federal government to step up and address this federal problem,” the governor continued.
Healey declared a state of emergency in the state in August due to the number of migrant families arriving in need of shelter and services, at a time when shelter space was already strained.
Massachusetts Catholic Charities organizations have been critical partners in the state’s response to both the migrant arrivals and general homelessness crisis. The heads of the organizations were all in agreement that it’s tragic and they’re disappointed that the state had to set shelter capacity limits, but they also understand why the decision was made.
“My faith would say that I’m sorely disappointed and sad that we would have to turn anybody away, or limit that capacity to serve, but there is always a reality that we also have to look at, and I know that we are overwhelmed, and that we do not have the resources to meet what is an ever-increasing need,” Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, told The Tablet. “Prudence requires somebody to say that we have to stop for a moment and take stock of where we are, what we have, and what more we can do.”
The majority of migrants who arrive in Massachusetts are in the greater Boston area.
Tuthill said the present “crisis” has existed for about a year. The city and state, she said, eventually asked Catholic Charities Boston to expand its shelter capacity, and so on July 4 they took over a 45-room former motel property. They currently have 139 individuals, 44 families, in residence. They staffed the property with a combination of in-house personnel and workers from a human services staffing firm.
The organization is also providing legal assistance to the migrants, through a state contract, focusing on applications for work authorization and asylum for families in the state shelter system. She said they do intake sessions for about 40 to 50 new Haitian entrants each week. Their resettlement team is also providing cash assistance and basic case management to over 1,500 primarily Haitian entrants.
They’re also participating in a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pilot program where different community groups step up to sponsor new arrivals to help them find housing and assimilate them to the area, and working on a separate program to help expedite the English language learning process and some cultural acclamation for new arrivals with the help of a $100,000 Catholic Charities grant.
Tuthill echoed Healey’s sentiment that the most important thing right now is finding a way to get new migrant arrivals work authorization. However, that comes with its own set of challenges given the different nationalities and situations people come from, and the fact that the state has a pre-existing affordable housing shortage that is compounding an already difficult situation.
“At the end of the day, to say that we want to clear out the shelters by making sure they have employment is great, but the reality is showing that many of them will not have their employment authorizations quickly, therefore they will not be eligible to work and they will not be eligible for many of the benefits which also means that they won’t be able to rent anywhere,” Buckley-Brawner said.
Buckley-Brawner said the western Massachusetts areas the Diocese of Springfield covers have taken in overflow from the greater Boston area. She estimates up to 1,000 people are being served by resettlement agencies.
Her organization doesn’t operate a shelter space, but has taken the lead on intake assessments of people who arrive, finding any social service benefits that might be available to migrants, and helping them begin to fill out their immigration paperwork.
Meanwhile, Susan Mazzarella, CEO of Catholic Charities of Fall River, said the organization has partnered with the state to run a family shelter program that takes in both migrant arrivals and the general homeless population. She said their capacity is 76 families, which they’re at now, and were at even before the migrant arrivals began to pick up in the state because of existing issues — affordable housing and a lack of low-income housing among them.
“You already have issues in Massachusetts — lack of affordable housing and a lack of low-income housing — which is sort of the standard crisis, and now you have all of these families coming into the commonwealth and it just exacerbates the existing crisis and it’s tragic,” Mazzarella said, adding that the New England winter weather is another concern they have once the capacity limits set in.
“Nobody can predict what’s going to happen, but people are afraid,” Mazzarella said.
Catholic Charities Worcester County did not respond to a Tablet request for comment.
Tuthill said the organization is working on stocking all of its centers with comfort kits to provide families when they show up, in addition to resource lists at the front desks. They’re still discussing other ways they can welcome those who arrive next month, she said, noting that different entities must come together to find solutions to the challenges.
“We’re going to work with our partners, we’re going to work with the government — both the state and city — and we have to find solutions together.” Tuthill said. “These are human beings, and if we focus our obligation to each other as human beings and try to have compassion, we’ll figure it out. We have to.”