Massachusetts is turning a former prison into a shelter for homeless families

FILE - A homeless man repacks his belongings on a sidewalk outside South Station, Nov. 15, 2023, in Boston. Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey is turning to a former prison, the Bay State Correctional Center, as a temporary safety-net shelter for families experiencing homelessness. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

By STEVE LeBLANC Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey is turning to a former prison as a temporary safety net shelter for families experiencing homelessness, a surge fueled in part by an influx of migrants to the state.

The Bay State Correctional Center will help house families on the waitlist for state shelter. It was decommissioned in 2015 and remains in good condition, officials said. The state prison population has fallen by nearly half in less than a decade.

The facility can accommodate about 140 families in dorm rooms with bathrooms and showers on each floor. It also has a cafeteria, a gymnasium, a large common room, and offices that will be used for case management and administrative activities.

“The site will be set up with play areas for children, as well as classroom spaces for adults to engage in activities that support pathways to stability such as ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes, job training courses, and housing search workshops,” Emergency Assistance Director Scott Rice said in a statement.

Leaders in Norfolk, Massachusetts, where the facility is located, said in a statement Monday that they had not been consulted before the decision.

Norfolk officials said the town was informed on Friday that the former prison had been designated as temporary shelter. They said the town had no role in the decision and was no consulted ahead of time.

Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll spoke to town officials on Saturday and told them the shelter will be managed by a shelter operation named by the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services through a competitive bid process.

The site should be up and running by next month, according to the state. The razor wire on the fence surrounding the facility will be removed and the gates will remain open so families will be free to exit and return as needed.

The shelter will house up to 140 families — or 450 people in total deemed eligible for emergency assistance. officials said. Some of the families have been staying at Logan International Airport.

The shelter is expected to operate from six months to a year, officials said.

Safety-net sites like the former prison are intended for homeless families with children or pregnant women who are eligible for emergency assistance under the state’s right to shelter law, but are currently on a waitlist. Abought half of families in emergency assistance in Massachusetts are newly arrived migrants.

Healey officials said the state is providing extra funding to help cover the cost of students suddenly arriving in school districts because of the emergency shelter situation.

Norfolk town officials said they plan to have regular conversations with state officials to make sure the town’s concerns are heard and to work collaboratively on solutions in the best interests of Norfolk.

Massachusetts will begin limiting how long homeless families can stay in shelters as the state continues to grapple with an increase in homeless migrants.

Beginning June 1, the total length of stay will be limited to nine months, at the end of which families will be eligible for up to two 90-day extensions, under a supplemental budget approved by state lawmakers and signed by Healey last month.

Other facilities turned into temporary shelters include a recreational complex in Boston.