With the Healey administration no longer allowing recently arrived migrants to stay overnight at Logan Airport, the state is offering a new overflow site: a former prison in Norfolk. The new site officially welcomed families nearly two weeks ago, on June 26, and local elected officials visited the facility for the first time Tuesday since it was reopened as a temporary shelter.

Katelyn O’Brien, Norfolk’s acting town administrator, says the difference is dramatic from just a few weeks ago.

“It didn’t really give off a lot of prison vibes,” said Acting Town Administrator Katelyn O’Brien, in comparison to her first visit weeks ago. “It is very calm; it had a calm, peaceful feeling to it.”

State officials opened the latest facility to house 140 families as the shelter system struggles to care for nearly 8,300 homeless and migrant families. In Norfolk, work by local officials and residents is still underway to ease the transition. But they say they’re pleasantly surprised by the changes since the first group of 22 families arrived nearly two weeks ago, as tensions have started to ease.

Officials were not permitted to take photos during Tuesday’s visit, but O’Brien says much of the prison signage — like “No Loitering” — has been covered up. Almost all of the razor-sharp barbed wire along the top of the former prison’s fence has been taken down. The rooms have heavy lockable doors but not bars, since Bay State Correctional Center was a minimum-security facility before it shuttered in 2015. A welcome banner in three languages made by local Norfolk children hangs in the main room. Outside the facility, children were climbing on a playground.

The facility does have air conditioning, but cell service is spotty and, according to state officials, WiFi service is still being set up.

The Heading Home Agency, hired by the state to oversee the shelter program, was present for the hourlong site visit.

“If I could compare the space, it would be like a big school dorm, if that makes sense. That’s how it looks inside,” O’Brien said.

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A new sign was posted outside the former Norfolk prison, as photographed on Tuesday, July 9, 2024.
Marilyn Schairer GBH News

The full impacts are still being worked out at the town level: This Thursday, the town and the school system will host a Bay State Emergency Overflow Shelter Parent Information session to discuss the impact on the schools this fall. It’s being held at the King Philip Middle School from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.

Norfolk officials and residents first learned in May that the site would be used as an overflow shelter. Some welcomed the families, forming a group called Norfolk Strong to support them that has about 250 volunteers.

Others worried about how the town of 11,000 would be affected, with lingering questions about financial impacts, schooling and public safety.

A specific concern that emerged among elected town officials was a potential slowdown in ambulance response times. The town has two ambulances, and some residents worried those would be tied up by a new group of pregnant women and potentially medically vulnerable migrants.

O’Brien says the state brought in an additional ambulance that is available Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. on a 30-day trial basis. She hopes it will be extended through the fall, when the shelter will be fully operational and home to roughly 450 people, to get a better “snapshot” of how much the ambulance service is needed.

With Gov. Maura Healey decreeing that, after July 9, migrants will no longer be able to stay overnight at Logan Airport, it’s expected those migrants will be moved to the Norfolk site.

The Healey administration did not immediately provide more details about the contract with Helping Home to operate the new site.

Some advocates believe the Norfolk facility a better solution: there are facilities and a cafeteria, and the children have a place to play outside with lots of greenspace. Peg Drisko, who volunteers with Norfolk Strong and formerly directed volunteer programs at Boston’s Pine Street Inn, agrees.

“I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I am saying that, that I think that — since they were in such a pickle to find a big enough facility, and it was empty — I can see why they went for it,” she said.

She adds that Heading Home has done a great job to convert the rooms for sleeping, case management offices, and daycare facilities.

“They’re an excellent agency,” Drisko said. “And I’m very happy that they got the contract in my little town.”

Lifelong Norfolk resident and former pastor Ron Tibbetts also volunteers with Norfolk Strong. He said the group has collected carseats, children’s school gift backpacks and personal hygiene packages.

Tibbetts added that much of the angry rhetoric is quieting down.

“They can’t make demands anymore because everything’s been done to the best of everybody’s ability,” he said. “But there’s still tension.”