EASTHAM — For nine days at the end of August, after Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency because of a shortage of shelters for unhoused families, six families were placed by the state in an Eastham motel.
The families arrived at the Ocean Park Inn, adjacent to the Four Points by Sheraton (both are operated by Marriott International), on Aug. 21 and departed on Aug. 29 after the state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities realized that the Outer Cape posed too many accessibility challenges for the families.
The families were part of the state Emergency Shelter Assistance program, which ensures shelter for eligible families under the state’s “right-to-shelter” law. But the confluence of a steady influx of asylum seekers entering Massachusetts and the end of Covid-era food and housing security programs has pushed existing emergency shelters beyond capacity, and the state has been forced to adopt stopgap measures.
“In recent months, demand has increased to levels that our emergency shelter system cannot keep up with,” Healey said in an Aug. 8 press release declaring a state of emergency.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Healey called on the federal government to streamline and expedite work authorizations for migrants and to increase funding for providing shelter to families.
There are currently 5,600 families and more than 20,000 individuals in shelters across Massachusetts, an 80-percent increase from last year. And the number of families leaving emergency shelters has declined by two-thirds since 2019, according to Healey’s letter.
Healey blamed these trends on “a confusing tangle of immigration laws, an inability for migrants to obtain work authorization from the federal government, an increase in the number of people coming to Massachusetts, and the lack of an affordable housing supply in our state.”
In the past few months, the state has housed more than 1,800 families in hotels and motels.
“Eastham is the first example of this coming to the Outer Cape,” state Sen. Julian Cyr told the Independent. “The administration is drinking from a fire hose here — we are past the brink.”
According to Cyr, four of the families placed at the Ocean Park Inn were Massachusetts residents. Most were from the Boston area, but some were from as far away as Springfield, more than 100 miles away. Two families were originally from Haiti. Together, the group comprised 35 people, with children ranging in age from 18 months to 17 years.
There was little time for the town and the Outer Cape’s food and social services organizations to prepare to help. For the first 24 hours the families were in town, nobody was informed they were here.
“It was a little bit of a mystery how they arrived,” said Eastham Town Administrator Jacqui Beebe. According to Beebe, she received a call from the governor’s office on the afternoon of Aug. 22, a day after the families arrived. “They said to call if I had questions but that the families ‘should be all set,’ ” Beebe said.
But the location of the Inn on Route 6, town officials knew, posed serious problems for the families. “I don’t know if, when the state placed them there, they understood that it was on a four-lane highway, and there were no sidewalks,” Beebe said.
According to Katie Wibby, chief executive officer of the Lower Cape Outreach Council, which helped provide essential services to the families, only one family had a vehicle, and the rest soon learned that “public transportation out here is quite limited,” she said.
Cyr added that one child faced significant health issues and another was enrolled in a special school outside Boston.
“They were just removed from all of their social connections,” Wibby said. “Family, friends, community resources they had in the locations where they lived. Some had never been on Cape Cod in their lives.”
According to Andrea Marczely, food access coordinator for Barnstable County Cooperative Extension, the state contracts with an agency to identify hotels with vacancies to house families in the program. “Wherever there is a first opening available, that’s where they get sent to,” Marczely said.
The town, along with the Lower Cape Outreach Council and several other local organizations and businesses, rallied to help feed the families and provide other basic services, Cyr said.
The following Monday, Aug. 28, the town received word that the state had located rooms closer to the families’ various home bases, and they left Eastham the next day, Beebe said. But during the week the families were there, “they didn’t know where they were going to go next and when that was going to happen.”
Beebe said that while the state paid for the placement of the families, local services also dipped into their own budgets. According to Healey’s press release, the state is spending $45 million a month on programs to help families find emergency assistance. But only $325 million was earmarked for the Emergency Shelter Assistance program for fiscal 2024, according to the State House News Service.
While Eastham is the farthest down Cape the state has found temporary lodging for families, it is not the only town on Cape Cod that has received a call from Gov. Healey’s office. The state was planning to place up to 100 families at the Yarmouth Resort before Healey placed a temporary hold on the motel to examine code-related issues.
According to a press release from the town of Yarmouth, the motel, which rents out a portion of its units to year-round tenants, is under notice for alleged zoning violations and a lack of certificates of occupancy.
Earlier this summer, Healey announced the expansion of Joint Base Cape Cod to accommodate up to 60 units of housing for homeless families.
It is unclear whether the state is planning to place more families on the Outer Cape. According to many of the sources the Independent contacted, state officials soon realized after placing the six families in Eastham that the Outer Cape’s infrastructure presents problems of access to those who are housing insecure.
“The state believes that our remoteness makes it difficult to place folks here,” Eastham Director of Health and Environment Hillary Greenberg-Lemos told the board of health during its Aug. 31 meeting. “But if more come, we are ready and available to assist in whatever capacity they need.”
“It’s unclear if it will be on the Outer Cape, but I would expect we will see more families who need shelter coming to Cape Cod,” Cyr said. “It’s important that every part of the Commonwealth helps out here.”