Advocates question conditions at shelter for migrants and families experiencing homelessness

Cots at the Bob Eisengrein Community Center in Devens, which has been converted into a temporary family shelter. (Courtesy Adam Hoole)
Cots at the Bob Eisengrein Community Center in Devens, which has been converted into a temporary family shelter. (Courtesy Adam Hoole)

Showers in a tent outdoors. Dozens of cots lined up in tight rows. A chilly draft blowing all night. These are some of the conditions alarming advocates at a new facility set up to help families with children who are experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts.

State officials opened the temporary shelter and intake center in Devens earlier this week to help manage a spike in new immigrants and families seeking assistance.

Some of the factors driving the rise in homelessness include record-high housing prices and an increase in families arriving after fleeing violence in places like Haiti and South America.

The temporary facility, at the Bob Eisengrein Community Center, is intended to ease the strain on municipal services, nonprofits and the state’s family shelter system – or Emergency Assistance shelter – which is already at capacity .

The state has also opened temporary family shelter beds at Salem State .

In announcing the Devens facility , the state said the triage center would house up to 60 families “during their first few days in shelter” and provide case management services and intake assessments before families were transferred to more permanent housing or into family shelters.

But homeless advocates said they were taken aback when they got their first glimpse Wednesday of conditions inside the temporary shelter. They also raised concerns about who is being sent to the intake center and whether the accommodations are legal.

“This was supposed to be for families looking to apply [for shelter],” with no place to stay in the interim, said Adam Hoole, a senior paralegal with Greater Boston Legal Services.

Instead, he said, the state is using the facility to house families that have already received approval for shelter. He said the facility “doesn't really meet a lot of standards for family shelters.”

“There were young children crying throughout the night in this open room.”

Adam Hoole

Cots at the Devens center have just a few feet of space between them, and there are no walls or sheets separating the beds.

Hoole, who went to visit a client there on Wednesday, estimated that there were 60 cots in the room where she and her two toddlers were staying. He said five or six other families were sharing the same space.

“The family was telling me that they didn't sleep very well last night,” he said. “There were young children crying throughout the night in this open room.”

Hoole said his client slept near a window, where she described a cold draft that blew around her cot all night.

Hoole was also surprised to see shower facilities that were set up outside the building, with stalls inside a tent.

“She had to be outside last night in this sort of lukewarm shower outdoors, and then stepping into freezing temperatures in the Massachusetts winter. And she had to bathe both herself and both of her toddlers,” he said. “This is certainly not a dignified way to treat people who are fleeing horrific circumstances, or who are homeless through no fault of their own.”

After Hoole visited his client in Devens, she was moved to a different family shelter. He can’t be sure, but he said he believes the family may have been moved because of the concerns he and his agency raised.

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), which runs the family shelter system, declined an interview request. But a spokeswoman said the Devens site provides services to families who are just entering the shelter system.

The goal, she said, is to provide a safe place to sleep for approximately three to five days, until other short- or long-term shelter becomes available.

Prior to accepting a placement at Devens, “families are informed that the intake center set-up there is all cots in a large room,” DHCD’s deputy director for the Division of Housing Stabilization, Adam Schaffer, wrote in an email to homeless advocates.

Also in the email, which was shared with WBUR, Schaffer said families can refuse placement at Devens without penalty. He wrote that the facilities there are similar to what the state has set up in other short-term emergency situations, like a fire or natural disaster.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of the temporary Devens intake shelter, did not respond to email and phone requests for comment.

Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Homelessness, said she worries conditions in the Devens center may not meet the legal requirements for the state shelter system.

"I've never seen families placed in Emergency Assistance in a placement that they didn't have their own room.”

Kelly Turley

Typically, a family receiving shelter stays in a private room and may share other facilities, like a bathroom, kitchen and living room, with additional families. When not enough shelter rooms are available, the state has placed families in hotel or motel rooms.

Turley said state law requires lawmakers to receive advance notice of any plans to reduce shelter benefits or change eligibility rules.

“It seems like a bed — an actual bed, versus a cot — and a door are benefits,” Turley said. “And removing those from families seems like a benefit reduction.”

Turley added that the “barracks-style setting” is particularly concerning given the surging number of respiratory infections currently reported in the state, including flu.

“I've been at the coalition for just over 20 years, and I've never seen families placed in Emergency Assistance in a placement that they didn't have their own room,” she said.

While the numbers of families experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts are high, they are not unprecedented, Turley said. In the past, she added, the answer has been to book more hotel rooms.

Liz Alfred, a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, said the facility in Devens looked to her “like a refugee camp,” and it was well below the standard for what the state has typically provided to families in the shelter system.

“This would be a big goal post move,” Alfred said.


Gabrielle Emanuel Twitter Senior Health and Science Reporter
Gabrielle Emanuel is a senior health and science reporter for WBUR.



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