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Migrant families arriving in Massachusetts face uncertainty as they're put on waitlists

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Massachusetts is feeling the effect of record-breaking immigration. Many thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, have arrived in the state homeless, without knowing anyone to stay with. As Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WBUR reports, these new arrivals are testing the state's longtime commitment to a strong safety net.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: For 40 years, Massachusetts has prided itself on a unique law that requires the state to provide shelter to most homeless families. Jean Francois Secius was told about the shelter system almost immediately after crossing into the U.S. three weeks ago. What he wasn't told was that same day, the governor had declared the system full and created a waitlist for homeless families. Secius discovered that only after arriving in Massachusetts.

JEAN FRANCOIS SECIUS: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

EMANUEL: Speaking in Haitian Creole, Secius described a sense of disappointment. He says he'd hoped to get help finding a place to stay. Instead, he slept at baggage claim in the airport with his wife and 2-year-old son.

SECIUS: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

EMANUEL: "I have no plans," he says. "I am like a bird - one with nowhere to land." Secius' family is one of more than a hundred wait-listed households who are scrambling to figure out what to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAURA HEALEY: We do not have enough space, service providers or funds.

EMANUEL: From her lectern at the statehouse, Governor Maura Healey has been sounding the alarm. The state's shelter population has more than doubled in the last year. Right now, there are over 7500 families in the system, many of them migrants. Months ago, the state ran out of space and started putting people in motels, often without caseworkers or other services. And it's a financial burden to the state, too, costing nearly $10,000 per family per month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEALEY: Our shelter system cannot expand indefinitely. This level of demand is not sustainable.

EMANUEL: So Healey announced a cap on the number of families in state-run shelters. Homeless advocates worried. Where would families wait, especially now that it's winter? When the shelter doors closed in mid-November, there was no clear answer.

DONNA MITRIA: We knew this was coming and, to not even have a concrete plan, at least one place to send these families, I think, is a huge failure.

EMANUEL: That's Donna Mitria of the local nonprofit La Colaborativa. In the weeks since implementing the waitlist, the state has converted conference rooms into space for 25 families to sleep, and a few religious and cultural groups have opened their doors. But Mitria says the uncertainty is hard.

MITRIA: The trauma and the distress that the families that - are locked out of the system is so incredible.

EMANUEL: Meanwhile, state lawmakers are in a monthslong stalemate, unable to agree on an infusion of new funds. As they wrangle, Secius' son had turned 3. On the eve of his birthday, the family was told they couldn't sleep at baggage claim and to go to a train station, along with a half dozen other homeless families. At the last moment, a Haitian group helped them for the night. But it's a pattern of uncertainty that has played out repeatedly.

SECIUS: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

EMANUEL: Secius says his family came to the U.S. to work and go to school and to live like human beings. But for now, he says, that goal is still aspirational.

For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gabrielle Emanuel