On a recent day in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood, a steady stream of people came through the front door of the nonprofit Immigrant Families Services Institute where they were directed to take a number and head to a waiting area. More than a thousand Haitian refugees in just the past three weeks have come there seeking help, said executive director Geralde Gabeau.
“The more the situation in Haiti is deteriorating, the more people are leaving. And currently because we have so many people living in distress, they are looking for safety,” Gabeau said.
Line Leonard was among those who sat waiting, paperwork in hand. He had been a pastor in Haiti and called for a stop to gangs and guns. A gang member came to his church and threatened to cut off his fingers and kill his parishioners.
He fled Haiti four months ago. Once he was through the U.S.-Mexico border, he made his way to Boston. Massachusetts is home to the third-largest Haitian diaspora in the country, with over half of that population estimated to live in the Boston area.
Leonard knew nothing about the city but he’d heard “from a friend who’d heard from a friend” it was a good place to go.
Leonard and thousands like him who escape violence in Haiti confront a different type of crisis when they make it to Boston: finding a place to stay. Massachusetts is experiencing what multiple nonprofits and state officials described as a “perfect storm”: a housing crisis pushing more and more people into emergency housing, coupled with a spike in refugee arrivals, particularly from Haiti. It’s pushed government safety nets over the brink as governments and local organizations try to fill the gap.
Haiti — the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere — has been wracked by a series of natural disasters in the past few decades. In the disasters’ aftermath, rival gangs, alleged to be backed by business and politicians, have terrorized citizens. The United Nations recently said Haiti was “descending into a catastrophic spiral of violence.”
The state is anticipating an even greater rise in arrivals — from Haiti and other countries — with the expected expiration Thursday of Title 42, a federal policy put in place during the pandemic to allow the rapid expulsion of migrants as a public health measure.
“We have been in close contact with our local and federal partners to prepare for the end of Title 42, and we will need their help to ensure we can meet the already rising need in Massachusetts, as our Emergency Assistance shelter system is currently operating at capacity,” said Karissa Hand, spokesperson for Gov. Maura Healey.
The state is increasingly relying on hotels to provide emergency shelter, as the number of families needing housing has spiked. In June of 2022, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) had only 19 families in hotels. Now, that number is up to 882 families.
After dwindling to a single hotel building last fall, the state added 200 units by the end of the year, and has added more than 600 hotel units since January, according to a DHCD spokesperson.
DHCD plans to keep expanding the number of hotels along with other options, including a dormitory at Salem State University now in use as a shelter, and a former government building in Westborough that’s being renovated to shelter families.
“In addition to the new arrivals to the state, increasing housing costs means more people are unable to afford a stable home and makes it even more difficult for families to exit shelter and find permanent housing,” said a DHCD spokesperson.
Community Teamwork, a Lowell-based nonprofit, is currently at capacity at the two hotels it manages, providing shelter and support services to more than 400 people.
The organization said high housing costs and a shortage of affordable housing mean there’s little turnover in emergency housing. So where residents in emergency housing might have stayed six to 10 months waiting for permanent housing, in some cases families are now staying more than two years.
“It’s creating a bottleneck issue right now within the system because we have so many families experiencing homelessness, however there’s no options for them to move,” said Carl Howell, chief program officer for Community Teamwork. The state is asking the Lowell nonprofit to find more hotels according to Communications director Kathleen Plath.
Once in Boston, Leonard moved from place to place wherever he could find a few days’ shelter with local Haitians, and slept one night last week at the Boston Medical Center in the emergency room lobby.
The Boston Medical Center, which over the past year has seen rising numbers of families experiencing homelessness including in particular new arrivals from Haiti, recently noted the strain on hospital resources including the emergency department and staff.
“A hospital is not set up to be the front door to the state’s family shelter system,” Boston Medical Center spokesperson David Kibbe said in a statement.
But the arrivals continue. On Monday night, six families — 19 adults and children — stayed overnight and then were “referred to DHCD in the morning,” according to Kibbe.
"The safety net here is really just pieced together with hospitals, community-based organizations, community health centers, all pitching in and doing as much as they can."Kate Froelich, a new arrivals specialist at MIRA
Like Leonard, 23-year-old Arestile Archange also knew nothing about Boston when he arrived. At the airport, he learned he could find a place to sleep at Boston Medical Center. So he and a fellow Haitian went there, where they slept on the floor. In the morning when someone came to mop, they had to leave.
Dieufort Fleurrisant, known in the Haitian community as Pastor Keke, said the wave of new arrivals do not have the family ties in the area that new migrants once had.
“Good deeds travels so fast and people, even while they are traveling from country to country, they heard about the hospitals and as soon as they are released from the border and make their way — especially to Boston Medical Center in the hope to get housing accommodations and be able to get assimilated into Massachusetts,” Fleurissant said.
But the state’s “safety net” is a patchwork of different services, as Kate Froelich, a new arrivals specialist at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition — known as MIRA — explained.
“[It’s] really just pieced together with hospitals, community-based organizations, community health centers, all pitching in and doing as much as they can,” Froelich said.
The Healey administration recently set aside $1.75 million for a new program to assist newly arrived immigrants and create that “front door” to centralize intake and connect arrivals with housing, social services and legal aid.
MIRA will manage the new program and working in partnership with groups like the Institute for International New England to set up a database to help manage cases. The state’s efforts are being praised by local organizations, including the institute.
“The problem is too big for any one provider,” said Alexandra Weber, a senior vice president at the Institute for International New England. She added that Haitians have become the biggest group “by far” among all the new arrivals her organization assists.
Leonard is grateful he found his way to Boston but worries about his wife and six children he had to leave behind in the Dominican Republic where they risked being ejected by immigration.
“But they can’t go back to Haiti because If they go back to Haiti, they will be killed,” he said through an interpreter.
Fleurissant said there are many, many others like Leonard who hope to come to the United States and places like Boston.
“This crisis will not stop until Haiti can see the light of improvement of its security system, of its food rationing down there,” Fleurissant said, “And we have not seen that because we do not have a functioning government right now in Haiti.”