Massachusetts is in the midst of a crisis as the state struggles to house and support an unprecedented number of migrant family arrivals. Cities and towns all over the state have stepped up to provide support and currently, more than 6,000 migrant families are in the state's emergency shelters, nearly double the amount from a year ago. Between 20 and 35 new families are now seeking shelter each day in Massachusetts, sometimes as many as 55, according to Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll. Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency last month and has deployed the National Guard to provide assistance to migrant families at shelters.
The state also opened its first “welcome centers” over the summer for families experiencing homelessness — first in Allston, then in Quincy on the campus of Eastern Nazarene College. Patricia Zio, the program director at the Quincy Family Welcome Center and Frenika Valcin, its program manager, spoke with GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath Wednesday about their efforts to assist migrants since the center opened nearly two months ago. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: So, Patricia, start off for us, tell us about the kind of assistance the new center has been able to provide in Quincy.
Patricia Zio: I think one of the first things that we're able to do is capture the information on the families that are coming in so that families are not slipping through the cracks when it comes to finding support and services and help that they need as we're trying to stabilize and find a new life with families where they're not just surviving everyday, but really trying to thrive. So we're able to capture that data and help them move into safe and stable housing so that they can start focusing on their personal goals and their family goals and finding health and stability.
Rath: And Frenika, what have the last couple of months look like?
Frenika Valcin: I think the last couple months have looked like a lot of families have been coming, and we have been trying to aid them in all the resources that they need. So right now, a lot of huge needs have been that they've been asking us for clothing, children's items, and a lot of them are wanting to start working as soon as they get here.
Rath: It's something we've heard quite a bit. Tell us about these families, where are they coming from and what is it about Massachusetts that represents a safe haven for them?
Zio: A lot of the families are coming from all over. There's no one location they're coming from. A lot of the families are coming to us from agencies such as like the hospitals down in Boston, as well as families that are currently being sheltered at Logan Airport due to overflow.
When it comes to the reasons that they're coming to Massachusetts, I know that the state has been looking into this information, so the Executive Office of Health and Human Services would probably have more specific data regarding the reasons why they're coming to Massachusetts.
Valcin: I guess the only thing I add is — just like Patricia said, we don't know why in particular, Massachusetts is the safe haven. But we know that a lot of the migrants are Haitian descendants and right now, Haiti is going through a lot of political unrest. A lot of things are happening in Haiti where all these families feel unsafe staying where they are, so they went through this journey to see: How can they gain safety?
It's a really hard journey because a lot of them are leaving family members behind who unfortunately are still dealing with the political unrest. But it's a risk that they're willing to take to make sure that they are safe and that they're able to provide safety for the rest of their family.
Rath: I have to imagine that this is just challenging work, if only for the logistics of it. You've had to start up this new center from from scratch. So many people are coming through needing the services. What have been the biggest challenges, logistically or otherwise?
Zio: I do know Eastern Nazarene College opening up the campus has been a logistical blessing. Being able to have the space that we need to be able to help the families as well as to be able to have shelter on site, to be able to triage the families quickly.
One of the logistical issues that I thought could have been a problem was trying to find staff members that all speak Haitian Creole. At a minimum, all of our staff is at least bilingual, but we have staff members who speak more than that. It's actually been great seeing the number of people who are interested in working with the welcome center, who are able to speak easily with the families to overcome that language barrier.
I think one of the challenges that I've seen is really understanding what these families need as they come in. We don't have a pre-set knowledge of exactly what we need to have on hand. We have diapers and wipes and formula and hygiene products, those kind of things we can kind of guesstimate at first. But it has been interesting to see how the needs have progressed, and the requests have come in for specific items that we didn't anticipate ahead of time. So making sure that we have what the families need on hand when they're in a shelter, and making sure that they have a sufficient quantity to where they're not feeling like they have to beg for their basic needs while they're on site with us.
“There have been people from the community contacting us almost daily, asking for ways that they can help.”Patricia Zio, program director at the Quincy Family Welcome Center
Rath: You mentioned the blessing of being able to get that the space on the campus of Eastern Nazarene College. Talk a little bit about how you adapted the spaces there and what are things like now that, I imagine, college is back in session.
Zio: With college being back in session, it has been great. The staff with Eastern Nazarene College have been fabulous trying to ease the transition with students coming back on campus. We're able to basically have our little corner of the campus universe for the families, to keep some delineation between the chaos of normal campus life and what these families are processing through when it comes to their services and living situation.
Rath: And what about the the community more broadly? What have been the levels of support you've seen?
Zio: We've seen a mix. At first there was a lot of confusion, but as information seems to be getting out, the community has really seemed to rally together to support the families and let them know that they're welcome. We did have some protest issues about a week or so ago, and in response there was a massive outpouring of not only visible people showing up to show their support, but also donations to help purchase supplies and help with the family's needs.
There have been people from the community contacting us almost daily, asking for ways that they can help when it comes to things, like — even toy drives for the children, warm weather drives, anything that we've got going on that we're looking at the future for or helping families needs.
Rath: Well, there's always going to be supporters and detractors, but it sounds like your supporters are really providing material support.
Zio: Absolutely. It has been wonderful to see the community really open their arms to people who are here to find the American dream.
Rath: Frenika, what do you think is most needed right now to help you and others meet the needs of migrants and the community?
Valcin: I think the biggest thing is advocacy for these immigrant families. So for me, I came from Haiti to here as well. I also went through the immigration system. I also went through the medical system as an immigrant. I feel like without advocacy from my medical teams, though my church or in my family, that I wouldn't get the necessary help or resources that I should have access to or I need access to. I think advocacy from communities and these different medical teams and different organizations would be really great for our immigrant families.
Rath: Well, Frenika, hearing about your background, I have to imagine this must be really powerful, meaningful work for you to be doing to help others in this way.
Valcin: Yes, it is, because a lot of the stories I've heard are very similar to my stories. So sometimes when families sit in front of me, I see myself. I also see my own family, though these people in their story. So a lot of times things do get a little personal for me, but I try to do my best and sometimes go over and beyond to see if I could be able to help these families.
Rath: Well, it's been great talking with you about this work that you're doing, Frenika. Thank you.
Valcin: Thank you.
Rath: And Patricia, thank you so much for talking with us about this.
Zio: I appreciate you bringing awareness to this topic and the work that we're doing because it is such an important issue going on right now.