Shrewsbury Town Manager Kevin Mizikar says he received a call one Friday in May saying the state would be moving 10 to 12 families into an area hotel in a few days. That number soon ballooned to 85.
Norton Town Manager Michael Yunits says he only found out migrants had been relocated to his town when the town clerk mentioned in June that she had been issuing birth certificates to people in hotels.
And in West Springfield, Mayor William Reichelt says his city is struggling to incorporate more than 100 mostly migrant children recently enrolled in public schools from the shelters.
A year after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis created headlines for sending 49 asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard, local town and city officials in Massachusetts say they are overwhelmed by the growing number of migrant families arriving at their borders. The influx of migrants in need of help is becoming commonplace as more families flee violence and economic turmoil in their home countries. And more than a dozen of town administrators told GBH News they wished the state would provide more information — and resources — to them to support the families as they incur extra municipal costs. Some questioned the wisdom of housing the families in hotels at all.
“Our complaint is, this is happening to us here and there's no news around it because it's not a Republican governor flying folks to a different state,’’ West Springfield's Reichelt told GBH News this week. “It's just the state housing people in West Springfield and no one telling us about it.”
Massachusetts is the only state in the country required by law to shelter unhoused families, because of the state's 1983 right-to-shelter law. More than 80 cities and towns have state-funded emergency assistance shelters, including hotels. The hotel shelters are now housing more than 2,780 families. There are 6,386 total families in the entire family shelter system.
State officials decline to say what percentage of those families are migrants. They say their goal is to make sure that all children and families are housed — at whatever time they show up needing help. To meet the surging need, Gov. Maura Healey on Aug. 31 activated the Massachusetts National Guard to assist shelters without contracted service providers. Those Guardsmen began arriving at sites Wednesday.
"It is of upmost importance that families are provided with shelter as soon as possible,'' said Kevin Connor, spokesperson for the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities. "While we work hard to provide local officials with notification of placements within their communities, sometimes notification occurs just before or after families have been sheltered."
Some local officials say communication has improved since Healey took office in January. In Marlborough, which is currently hosting 85 families in the city's hotels, Mayor Arthur Vigeant says he now gets a heads up if there’s a group of families coming to town.
But Vigeant would like to see state legislators eliminate the right-to-shelter law. “Communities should decide for themselves if they want to house anyone who walks in the door,’’ he said. “We have veterans and seniors and homeless in Massachusetts that we can't find housing for.”
Reichelt also questions the policy, and said hotels in his city have housed migrants since summer 2022.
“I understand there's a housing crisis,'' he said. "But living in the Clarion for extended periods isn't a great plan.”
“I understand there's a housing crisis, but living in the Clarion for extended periods isn't a great plan.”Will Reichelt, mayor of West Springfield
“It’s been a huge challenge”
Once town and city leaders know migrant families are arriving, municipalities say they scramble to help them assimilate and get resources.
In Shrewsbury, nearly 53 migrant children — mostly in kindergarten through third grade — had to be enrolled in school. Mizikar told GBH News that the state has been “supportive” in providing a $1,000 grant for each student and $104 daily to the school district per student. But the town doesn't have train service, and he worries about the lack of transportation for migrants.
“How can we get these individuals to grocery stores? How can we get them to appropriate social services? How can we get them to medical appointments?” he asked. “It’s been a huge challenge.”
Many officials say they depend on local resources for help. In Greenfield, community members, local government and service groups have all worked together to aid the 150 people living in two shelters.
“The school department was notified and they came and they registered as many children as they could of school age to get them into the school,” said Mayor Roxann Wedegartner.
Amy Timmins, vice president of community relations for ServiceNet, a state-contracted service provider working in Greenfield, described a Zoom call earlier this summer where about 90 volunteers showed up. She said area congregation members have transported families to Spanish-speaking churches in Holyoke and Springfield. Thirty parents are now enrolled in the local Center for New Americans to learn English.
"People have been wonderfully welcoming," Timmins said. "It's been great."
Municipalities say they are balancing helping migrant families with economic strains and concerns about public safety.
Methuen Mayor Neil Perry said he’s seen a notable increase in law enforcement calls to the hotel that houses homeless families in his city.
“There’s a cost to that that's borne by the community,” he said.
In Kingston, Town Administrator Keith Hickey says the Baymont Hotel has more than 400 people staying there, a mixture of domestic and migrant families. He said a month ago, two children using a microwave filled the hotel with smoke, and the building had to be evacuated.
“This hotel wasn't constructed for long-term living,” he said. “My concern was that, God forbid, somebody brings a hot plate and an emergency event occurs and somebody gets hurt.”
The contracts between hotels and the state are also impacting town’s bottom lines, officials said.
In Norton, hotel room tax gives the town between $80,000 and $100,000 a year, said Town Manager Yunits. “We rely on the room tax from the hotels, and now that's going to be affected because the state will not be paying the room tax,” he said, adding that several towns made the lieutenant governor aware about the issue last week.
Connor, from the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, said the state pays the tax on rooms being booked on an emergency basis, and "contracts with service providers who manage hotel sites account for the providers paying the tax to the hotel," he said. Towns said they're still waiting to be reimbursed.
Vigeant in Marlborough also is concerned about the impact to tourism with the city's New England Sports Center. He said the Days Inn, where tourists often stay, in now nearly full with migrant families.
“It’s a problem for our business community and for our sports facilities that rely on the hotels,” he said.
Taunton Mayor Shaunna O'Connell says there are 130 families in the Clarion Hotel, which has been shut down to others who want to visit the city. O'Connell has been fining the hotel $1,000 daily for alleged overcapacity. On Wednesday she said the town is working with the hotel to revise its occupancy certificate, but she's dissatisfied with the "extremely slow" response from the hotel and "incomplete" documentation. She said the fines remain in effect.
Like many other town administrators who spoke to GBH News this week, O'Connell urged the state to provide more information and more resources. At the federal level, she said, lawmakers need to provide more comprehensive immigration reform — rather than leaving the burden on local communities.
"Municipalities and government leaders want to know what's happening in their communities and they do not,” she said.