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Massachusetts launching nation’s first pilot program to help migrant families in shelters find long-term housing

Then-gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey joins her endorsed candidate for Attorney General, Andrea Campbell, on Primary Day at the Lower Mills Library voting place on Sept. 6, 2022, in Mattapan, Massachusetts. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald/TNS)

Gov. Maura Healey’s administration is in the process of inking contracts with all eight resettlement agencies in Massachusetts to launch a one-year pilot program that could help up to 400 migrant families already in shelter find long-term housing and employment.

Resettlement agency leaders who spoke to the Boston Herald said the pilot program would be the one of the first of its kind and place Massachusetts at the forefront of responding to a surge of arriving families who have fled oftentimes unstable or dangerous conditions in their home countries.

The program would come as the Healey administration is looking to ease pressure on emergency assistance shelters, which have filled to capacity over the past year following an influx of migrants alongside high housing costs that hurt families who are already in Massachusetts. Some families waiting for shelter have even taken to sleeping at Logan Airport.

Two resettlement agencies, the International Institute of New England and Ascentria Care Alliance, confirmed they were in active negotiations with the state and hoped to finalize contracts in the coming weeks to participate in the program.

International Institute of New England President and CEO Jeff Thielman said the pilot program being hashed out “is very new to us” but the organization looks forward to partnering with the state.

“This isn’t being done anywhere else in the country. We’re going to try it and kudos to Gov. Healey for giving it a shot,” Thielman said in an interview. “Seriously, she could have said, ‘this is crazy.’ But she said, ‘OK, let’s give it a shot.’ So I’m grateful to her and I don’t want to let her down.”

The details of the state-funded pilot program are still in flux but the general idea, according to a copy of one proposal shared with the Herald, would see the agencies work with migrant families who are already in emergency assistance shelters to find an apartment or other long-term solution.

Resettlement agencies would provide one year of case management after a family is placed in housing, according to the draft proposal. That could include helping a migrant family navigate a new community, find employment and make sure income starts flowing in so the family will no longer be dependent on state aid.

Resettlement agencies would also help migrant families apply for HomeBASE, a state-run program that provides families who have been found eligible for emergency assistance up to $30,000 over a two-year period for housing payments with the possibility of a third year of help.

The rental stipend from HomeBASE would decrease as families’ income increases, according to the draft of the pilot program.

The pilot program would draw $8 million in funding from a pot of $10 million already set aside for resettlement agencies in a spending bill Healey signed in December. The budget, which closed out Massachusetts’ books on fiscal year 2023, was the subject of fierce debate on Beacon Hill.

Another $2.5 million — $2 million from the closeout budget and $500,000 from the fiscal year 2024 budget — would head to resettlement agencies who help find refugees private housing before they enter the shelter system, according to the program drafts.

“What we don’t want is the folks we’re already expecting to come in to then wind up in the shelter system because we weren’t able to respond to their needs,” said Christine Tappan, the chief of community based services and advancement at Ascentria Care Alliance.

Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand said the contours of the program are still being ironed out but the administration “believes that resettlement agencies have an important role to play in connecting newly arrived families with stable housing.”

“We appreciate their existing work to provide legal services to families in emergency assistance shelters. We’re grateful to the Legislature for making this funding available and look forward to standing up this program,” Hand said in a statement to the Herald.

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said they are in “active discussions” with resettlement agencies about the pilot program, which would run alongside the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities to place migrants in shelter in “permanent housing.”

Tappan said Healey administration officials asked the state’s eight agencies to consider helping up to 400 families who are already in shelter find long-term housing. There were 7,510 families in the emergency shelter system as of Friday and 600 families on the waitlist as of Thursday, according to the state’s housing department.

The agencies are in the process of figuring out how many families they can assist, Tappan said. Ascentria Care Alliance, for its part, has committed to helping 75 families while the International Institute of New England committed to 50 families.

Other resettlement agencies have committed to helping between 25 and 50 families, according to agency leaders working on the proposal.

Tappan said the pilot program is not something that has been tried in other states.

“I’m not sure I’ve heard of this kind of joining of the homelessness housing system and the refugee resettlement system at a systemic level,” she said. “It happens on a local community level but we’re really trying to do this just about statewide.”

Thielman said the International Institute of New England would initially target apartments in the Greater Lowell or Greater Boston area that have a monthly rent of about $2,000. The agency would then help families access HomeBASE to support moving costs, furnishings, and rental payments.

The agency pitched case management services like helping migrant families enroll their children in school or child care, connecting with health care providers, or enrolling in other public benefits.

The International Institute of New England already has a contract with the Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants to provide basic case management and immigration legal assistance to migrant families in unsupported hotels.

But the new contract the organization is hashing out with the state would expand their state-backed services to include apartment hunting and extended case management.

“We do not have a signed contract,” Thielman said. “We have a proposal, and we are in active discussions as to finalize it.”


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