With shelter system at capacity, state turns to Concord hotel for emergency use
In late January, the town of Concord got a piece of news that quickly spread through the affluent community: The state had entered into an agreement with a local hotel, and would be setting up an emergency family shelter for homeless and migrant families in need of a place to stay.
Some residents wanted to know how they could help, and what would happen to long-term residents who reside at the hotel. Some wondered if the shelter’s occupants would clog traffic, overwhelm their schools, or threaten their safety. Residents and town officials alike said they were thrown off by the short notice and questioned whether renting the Best Western hotel was a long-term shelter solution.
The hotel, situated between Route 2 and the Assabet River, may signal what’s coming for other communities in a state experiencing a swell of migration, an acute shortage of affordable housing, and a growing population of homeless people — all of which combine to stretch the government’s shelter system to a breaking point.
For now, it is Concord residents who are learning what it means when the acute housing crisis lands in their community.
“It highlights the lack of larger planning and funding in the housing system across the entire state,” said Lorna Campbell, a social worker and Concord native who lives four blocks from the Best Western. “Is a larger plan in place for providing options for housing across the state where families aren’t living in hotels and children don’t have to eat from a hot plate?”
The Department of Housing and Community Development, which manages the state’s emergency assistance system, intends to rent all 105 hotel rooms on an annual basis, with the first lease beginning March 1, the agency told the Globe. The hotel will host families for three to five days, but the agency will consider using a portion of the rooms for longer-term placements.
Statewide, there are only 3,600 shelter units in place; the Concord area, specifically, faces a critical shortage. Meanwhile, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Concord is $3,250, according to Zillow.
There are 98 shelter sites and 14 motels or hotels operating as family shelters statewide, according to the agency, but there are plans to continue opening new sites, as the existing family shelter system has effectively reached capacity.
Town officials said they were given notice on Jan. 23, and met with state officials a week later. A town social worker has been deployed to help assist when the shelter opens, but the extent of the town’s involvement remains up in the air.
“The hardest thing was gathering information,” Concord Town Manager Kerry Lafleur said. “We don’t have all of our questions answered at this point. We are still trying to chase some things down.”
She’d like to know how the facility will be accessed and what its impact on schools and traffic might be.
The state has made similar moves in other communities as it tries to meet the growing demand for shelter. Last fall, officials from Plymouth and Kingston complained that the Baker administration had failed to give them advance warning before placing migrants and homeless families into hotels in the South Shore communities. Before the move to the South Shore, many families were staying at a hotel in Methuen.
Massachusetts has a legal obligation to immediately provide emergency shelter to homeless families due to a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law, the only state in New England with such a requirement. State officials are scrambling to add to the shelter system to avoid running afoul of the law.
“With our Emergency Assistance system currently at capacity, our administration is unfortunately having to turn to motels to accommodate demand,” Governor Maura Healey’s office said in a statement, noting that the administration is committed to communicating with cities and towns when a new shelter is opening.
The arrival of thousands of migrant families and the rise in homelessness swamped the state’s emergency shelter system last year, forcing the Baker administration to place families in hotels. There were more than 200 families housed in hotels in November — a number that has more than doubled since the start of the year. As of Tuesday, 473 migrant and homeless families were living in hotels, according to state figures.
House and Senate leaders declined to advance funding, proposed by Baker toward the end of the legislative session, to shore up the shelter system.
This year, Healey proposed a supplemental budget that includes $85 million to support the emergency assistance program for families in need of shelter. The proposal also includes $9.5 million to maintain a temporary central intake center where families can receive a variety of services, including immigration-focused case management and health checkups. This central intake center is located at a community center in Devens, but it will wind down operations this spring. State officials said the funding can be applied to the Concord facility, which would evolve into a central intake facility.
Some Concord residents say the arrangement offers an opportunity for the well-to-do town to welcome those in need, much like the Edgartown residents who stepped up to help when migrants were flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last fall in an apparent political stunt.
There are 25 families from Concord and the surrounding area housed at a barracks-style emergency shelter in Devens, some of whom have children enrolled in Concord schools.
“Maybe it’s Concord’s turn to take care of homeless people down on their luck,” said Stephan Bader, a longtime resident who serves on the town’s Housing Authority. “We have to get used to welcoming people. We have to get used to more people being around here.”
Simon Cataldo, the state representative for the area, wrote in a letter to his constituents last Tuesday that he shares their concerns about “the suitability of this location,” but said that “you can draw a straight line between the housing supply crisis and the emergency need for temporary shelter for families.”
“So many people are teetering on the edge of not being able to afford their rent,” the freshman Democrat, who lives near the hotel, told the Globe. He said he’s received more constituent outreach on this issue than any other since he was sworn in last month.
“From the conversations I’m having, residents and community groups are viewing this as an opportunity to reinvigorate discussions around building more affordable housing,” he said.
Cataldo spoke at a Monday night select board meeting, where a handful of residents voiced their opposition to the plan.
One resident, Victoria Klimkiewicz, wrote in a letter that the decision “seems rushed, forced, and not well planned for.”
She also spoke Monday night, saying “my personal opinion and what I have heard from a lot of my neighbors . . . is that this is not a great location, even for a temporary stay.”
Resident Victoria Wyslouch, said “there is a lack of transparency and lack of communication . . . that creates fear and resentment in my neighborhood.”
One resident said that she didn’t like the idea of people from other areas being brought to her town, and that she worried how the shelter may affect property values.
“I worked very hard to be able to afford to live in this town for the good schools and overall safety,” Beth Cuttone, wrote in submitted testimony. “This is not right. . . . I feel like the town is trying to drive out the middle class.”
Senator Michael Barrett, who represents the area, said that while there is understandable confusion about the situation, the interest in helping “nicely counterbalances the angst.”
“Townspeople in my district aren’t given notice when a hotel fills up for a trade show, or when a hotel fills up with tourists,” he said. “Too little notice would stoke resentment. Too much notice would go to another extreme.”
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