Safety Net Family Shelter opens in East Cambridge

DECEMBER 24, 2023

Dear Cambridge and Somerville constituents —

As we celebrate the holiday season and settle in for the first days of winter, I want to take a moment to share recent news about efforts we are making to address the continued influx of migrants to Massachusetts and the ongoing homelessness emergency facing our communities.

This past week, the Healey-Driscoll Administration announced that they identified vacant courthouse space in the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds Building in East Cambridge for the site of a new, emergency overflow shelter. This space was formerly occupied by the Probate and Family Court South, which moved to Woburn in 2020.

This new overflow shelter (dubbed a "Safety Net Family Shelter") will accommodate up to 70 unhoused families who are on the waitlist for regular Emergency Assistance shelter under our Commonwealth’s Right To Shelter law.

Operations at this new Safety Net Family Shelter got underway Friday evening, and I was there, along with other key state and city officials, to ask questions and provide oversight, and to welcome some of the first arrivals. I returned to the site yesterday, and I can say the area around the entrances to the building on Cambridge Street and Second Street was cleaner than it was prior to the setup of the shelter, and there was no visible sign to the outside world that vulnerable families were sleeping on cots inside the building.

As State Representative for this location and the surrounding East Cambridge neighborhood, I have been engaged in many conversations with the Healey-Driscoll Administration, Secretary Galvin’s office (they control the building), the Cambridge City Manager and Mayor, my local legislative colleagues, numerous constituents, local business leaders, service providers, and advocates. I have been pushing everyone to work together for an effective operation that works for all concerned.

There’s been an immense set of challenges to standing up a shelter in this 153-year-old building, including outdated infrastructure and a lack of showers, among other issues. Earlier this week, I had the idea to ask MIT to offer shower facilities to these families, and I am pleased to report the university has graciously obliged.

We know efforts to address this ongoing emergency have faced pushback and opposition in other communities across the state. And yet, with temperatures dropping and the Christmas holiday upon us, we cannot in good conscience have unhoused families with children, pregnant people, and domestic violence victims sleeping on the streets or in places unfit for human habitation. Notably, the shelter is open not just to migrants fleeing economic turmoil in Haiti and South America, but also to longtime Massachusetts families who fall into homelessness. 

We in Cambridge pride ourselves on being a welcoming community, and for my part, I am committed to doing everything possible to uphold our Right To Shelter law and to ensure ample services are provided to these unhoused families, while at the same time advocating for the interests and concerns of my East Cambridge constituents and all of our local residents. The Administration has told us to expect the shelter to be in operation throughout the winter, and the expectation is that this will serve as a model for other Safety Net Family Shelters in other communities.

On Friday afternoon, I spent some time knocking on doors on Cambridge Street, Third Street, and Otis Street and talking with constituents throughout neighborhood. I listened to constituents express a wide range of questions and concerns. For example:

  • Why was there no community meeting to discuss these plans ahead of time? With a legal mandate to provide shelter to the most vulnerable in our Commonwealth, the Healey-Driscoll Administration decided to explore the potential of the Registry building confidentially. They say they didn't know for sure if the building would even be suitable for this purpose until after the news became public a few days ago, and I think there was also a fear that the right-wing hate machine might try to stoke flimsy narratives about who these people are and why they are here. With the holiday weekend coming up, they felt like there was no time to spare. There will be an online Town Hall Meeting to discuss the situation later this week. Stay tuned for further details. I will be participating in this meeting along with city and state officials.
  • Why did they choose the East Cambridge neighborhood for this site? Why not somewhere else? While it's true that the City of Cambridge is a leader in providing individual adult shelter to people experiencing homelessness, the reality is the Administration has yet to place significant numbers of unhoused families in our community, even as over 70 other Massachusetts communities have already taken on a total of over 7,500 unhoused families in hotel rooms this year. In Cambridge, our hotel rooms are generally so expensive that we haven't been part of any mass-scale EA shelter efforts (although a handful of small-scale efforts exist, such as in Porter Square). Even with the ramp up of this shelter in East Cambridge, we still will not be among the top 20 municipalities in the state in terms of hosting unhoused families. Some have asked why not use the Cambridge Armory on Concord Ave. The answer from the Administration is that this site requires federal approval.
  • Are these folks "undocumented" and/or potential criminals? To reach this point in the immigration or asylum process, these migrants have gone through numerous levels of federal and state review, including international background checks and a certification of humanitarian status. Before entering the United States, these families make an appointment with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and are then given a date to enter the country legally. They are then photographed, their fingerprints are collected, and they are given a control number. In fact, I've been advised it is incorrect to refer to the families now staying in East Cambridge as "undocumented." Generally, these migrants have been granted a two-year "humanitarian parole" by the federal government, giving them time to apply for work permits and asylum. Upon arriving in Massachusetts (typically via Logan Airport), the state then reviews all of this documentation before considering placement in a family shelter. It's also important to keep in mind this program is not open to just any individual or immigrant. To qualify for our Right To Shelter law, you must be a family with young children, a domestic violence victim, or pregnant, etc.
  • How can Cantabrigians let these families know they are welcomed here? How can people donate or volunteer to help support the effort? While many abutters have understandably expressed real concerns with this situation, many have also asked how they can help out. Right now, the families are being oriented to the space by the state's contracted service provider, AMI, along with staff from the state's Department of Health of Health and Human Services and the city's Department of Human Service Programs as well as the Office of the Housing Liaison. My hope is that the upcoming Town Hall Meeting will offer additional news about how we can all show our support.

As someone who was raised in public housing and who spent time in foster care as a youth, and as a member of the legislature's Joint Committee on Housing and a longtime housing justice advocate, this has been an emotional few days for me. It breaks my heart to think that victims of domestic violence or a pregnant woman or a family with young children would be out on the freezing streets or in a place not fit for human habitation on Christmas Eve if it wasn’t for the extraordinary efforts being made by our Commonwealth and our city. I'm also so happy to report that service provider AMI has secured a big batch of toys for the children, and I'm told they will be surprised tomorrow morning with these gifts!

As always, constituents are encouraged to reach out to me directly with any questions or concerns about this or any other matter. I plan to continue engaging in this matter as we work to uphold our nation-leading Right To Shelter law while at the same time making sure the concerns of local residents and abutters are fully addressed.

Thank you, as always, for being an engaged and informed constituent of the 26th Middlesex District. And here's wishing you and your family all the best for the remainder of the holiday season!

Yours in service,