Chelsea Council Meeting Addresses Temporary Shelter at Former Soldiers’ Home

Chelsea City Councilors raised questions and concerns about the use of the former Chelsea Soldiers’ Home as a temporary shelter for migrants at a special meeting with state officials last Thursday.

The use of the vacant Quigley Building was announced by Governor Maura Healey on Monday, March 25 as part of efforts to handle the overflow of migrants into the state over the past year. City officials were first notified of the plan the day before the announcement.

It is expected that the shelter will be open for six to 12 months, according to the governor’s staff, and will serve 100 families, the first of which should be in place later this month.

Thursday night, officials from the Healey administration outlined how the migrant influx has multiplied exponentially over the past two years, as well as how the state plans to operate the temporary shelter.

It was also announced that Chelsea nonprofit La Colaborativa will be the service provider for the families at the shelter.

Council President Norieliz De Jesus, who works for La Colaborativa, recused herself from the discussion after outlining the timeline and efforts the council made once being informed of the temporary shelter plan.

“In my capacity as council president, although this shelter falls outside my district line, I have diligently pushed for transparency within our community,” De Jesus said. “There were definitely challenges that we confronted with communication. We got a very short timeframe to be fully briefed for the public questions that came about.”

De Jesus noted that the council and city administration met quickly to meet with the governor’s staff about the plan, as well as to reach out to the neighborhood around the Old Soldiers’ Home.

“The reality is we are all confronting a crisis that is beyond our city and our state,” she said.

De Jesus stressed that the special meeting did not pertain to the determination of the establishment of the shelter.

“This property falls under state jurisdiction, therefore we have no control over it and this decision has already been made by the governor,” said De Jesus. “Tonight’s focus is on comprehending the procedural, logistical, and operational aspects of this site so that our families in Chelsea have a clear understanding of what to expect as this moves forward.”

General Scott Rice, the state’s emergency assistance director, gave an overview of the migrant influx that has seen as many as 1,000 families come into the state per month in recent months.

As the state met its shelter capacity, it started contracting with underutilized hotels throughout the state as supplemental shelters.

“In October and November, we could clearly see the number of shelters and providers, and the cost to manage the whole, they just became insurmountable, and that’s when we decided to implement a policy of a cap at 7,500 families in the system,” said Rice.

With families continuing to come into the state, it got to the point where the state had to establish overflow sites. The Chelsea site will join overflow sites that have already opened in Quincy and Cambridge, Rice said.

The goal of the overflow sites, and the emergency shelter system as a whole, is to get people into stable housing, help them find employment, and become part of the community, Rice said.

There are currently supplemental shelters, mainly the hotels, in about 90 communities in the state. In November, Rice said the state hit the capacity of 7,500 families, with over 700 currently on the shelter waitlist.

The goal of the overflow sites, such as the one at the Old Soldier’s Home, is to provide safe shelter and services for the most vulnerable on the waitlist. That includes those who are either pregnant or just gave birth, and those with major medical issues.

The families are vetted by state staff, according to Alicia Rebello-Pradas, the governor’s chief of staff for legislative affairs.

Rebello-Pradas also ran through what a typical day would be like for the migrants at the Chelsea overflow site, as well as the services that will be provided by La Colaborativa and others. She said the shelter will provide services 24/7, and that there will be security on site at all times.

La Colaborativa will oversee the staffing and day-to-day needs of the families, including providing three meals per day, case management focused on stable housing and employment, school enrollment, and transportation from the shelter from the Family Welcome Centers and to necessary medical and immigration appointments. There will also be basic necessities such as diapers, formula, and hygiene items provided.

Additional services will include legal assistance for work authorization and on-site health screenings.

“The goal is to transition families from this site to other locations,” said Rebello-Pradas. “Hopefully, that is stable housing, though some may enter the emergency assistance shelter system and be referred to other locations.”

Jon Santiago, the state’s veterans’ services director, said there have been concerns expressed by veterans at the nearby domiciliary campus and the new veterans’ home about security and transportation. He said there will be more conversations with the veterans about those concerns and that the state is committed to making sure they feel safe and secure.

When questioning from the council opened up, Councilor-at-Large Leo Robinson, who lives near the Old Soldiers’ Home, expressed some of his frustrations and those of his neighborhood.

“First of all, where is the respect to the local public officials,” said Robinson. “I received a call on Sunday evening that the governor would be making an announcement on Monday regarding placing families at the Soldiers’ Home hospital. Why were we not notified by the governor or her staff?

“This did not happen overnight; we should have been involved in the process.”

Robinson also wanted to know if the temporary shelter would impact the schedule of the proposed Pennrose development of the domiciliary campus, as well as the impact on parking in the neighborhood.

He said the state should also have been on hand to answer more questions about the impact on public services and educational costs to the city. Robinson also raised some issues about the building itself, which was discontinued two years ago, and how it was going to be occupied.

The councilor also wanted to know if the facility had adequate bathroom and kitchen facilities for the proposed use.

“With respect to the Pennrose Development, this should not impact that at all,” said Santiago, with an anticipated groundbreaking at the end of 2024 or beginning of 2025.

Officials noted that there are also fire alarm and safety updates being made to the old Quigley building itself to ensure safety, and that there will be an occupancy permit from the state. In addition, they also said there would be adequate bathroom facilities, and that culturally appropriate food would be brought into the site for the three meals per day that will be provided at the shelter.

District 2 Councilor Melinda Vega asked if Massachusetts families would potentially be taken off the shelter waitlist and housed in Chelsea, as well. Rebello-Pradas said Massachusetts families would be eligible for shelter at the site.

Councilor-at-Large Roberto Jimenez-Rivera asked if there was an idea of what the demographics of those using the shelter might be so that providers might be better equipped to know what languages would be used when providing assistance.

The state officials noted that the vast majority of new arrivals to the state are Haitian.

District 7 Councillor Manuel Teshe reiterated the city should have been notified earlier, but he added that he applauded the governor for being able to take the initiative and help vulnerable families.

Teshe did ask if there was contact with the Chelsea school department about its current capacity to take in students.

“We have to make sure that wherever they go, that public education is prepared to take them,” said Teshe.

District 1 Councilor Todd Taylor asked about the procedure for the migrants receiving work permits, which he said he believed was a federal procedure and not done through the state.

The state officials noted that there have been nearly 4,000 work permits that have been filed through the services it has provided, with about 3,000 having received their work permits.

“I just want to make a general comment regarding this specific site at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home,” said Taylor. “It is a site that is here that is probably a lot better than a lot of other sites that probably could have been used. I just want to reiterate Councilor Robinson’s initial thing about – I didn’t receive a phone call, I got phone calls from my colleagues, so I think there is room for improvement on that.”

Taylor said what happens with the lack of communication is that not everyone has all the correct information about the situation and that it makes people nervous.

“You can understand why some of the residents, especially in that neighborhood, are nervous about this,” said Taylor. “That being said, we have a significant problem here overall, and it seems like you guys are working hard to address it. My major concerns aren’t with what is going to be done here right now, because we can do all of these things and make it work right now, but what are we going to do when the faucet is running, and people come, and there are only so many places that we have.

“We have a limited number of resources,” he added. “It is all well and good, and I think all of us here want to help families … but we also want to be proactive about this problem”

Taylor asked what the state officials what they were doing to put pressure on the federal government so that there would not be a constant influx of people that would, at some point, break the bank.

At the end of the special meeting, Robinson, as the senior member of the council, was acting as chair so Taylor could speak. He denied a request to allow La Colaborativa to make a presentation, pointing out that the presentation was not on the agenda for the meeting and would have violated the open meeting law.

Jimenez-Rivera said it should have been up to the full council, not just Robinson as the acting chair, as to whether the meeting should have continued with a presentation from La Colaborativa.

“I think the big piece is that (Robinson) made a determination that this was not compliant with the agenda, and then Councilor Teshe disagreed and then I disagreed,” said Jimenez-Rivera. “My understanding was that we were having a conversation about it.”

Jimenez-Rivera said it would have been helpful for the council to get more information from La Colaborativa about its planned operation. Since the council did not know the organization was not going to be the services operator prior to the meeting, they were not given a seat at the table with the state officials. If it had been known, Jimenez-Rivera said the council could easily have made room for at least one representative from La Colaborativa to address questions and concerns.

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