By Maile Blume
A rapidly growing number of Haitian migrant families are seeking shelter in Massachusetts to escape violence, poverty, and hunger — all of which have intensified since 2021 following the assassination of the former President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse. Malden joins cities throughout Massachusetts in responding to the needs of the incoming families.
Reverend Dieufort Fleurissaint, the founder of True Alliance Center, Inc. — a Haitian-led organization dedicated to supporting migrant families — said that those arriving often do not have any family ties in the U.S. and face many challenges to finding housing and employment.
“You know what’s the number one thing they told me? They need to work,” said Fleurissaint, adding, “Many of them are engineers, teachers, doctors, plumbers, professional drivers, artists — many of them had basically previous professions back home.”
However, migrants seeking shelter in Massachusetts must wait for work authorizations, which can sometimes take six months to a year to receive. In the meantime, the families depend on services contracted through non-profit organizations, including shelter in motels and hotels, and food delivery programs.
On August 31, Bread of Life — a food security organization based in Malden — provided their first food delivery to 40 Haitian migrant families. By November 6, the number had grown to 75 families.
Gabriella Snyder Stelmack, the Executive Director of Bread of Life, said that Bread of Life received the contract to provide food delivery to many of the families shortly after Governor Maura Healey announced a state of emergency over the state’s overloaded shelter system on August 8.
Since August, Bread of Life has been expanding its services to keep up with the increase in families coming to the greater Boston area from Haiti.
“We’ve tried to do culturally appropriate foods,” said Stelmack, adding, “The main impediment to that is that they can’t actually cook in the motel rooms.”
Stelmack said that some of the other needs that organizations are navigating are setting up families with interpreters, getting children enrolled in school, making sure the families have access to medical care, and ensuring that they also have access to public transportation.
“Some of the hotels or motels are accessible to public transportation, and some not so much,” said Stelmack. “That’s an issue if you’re in a hotel on the highway,” she added.
Bread of Life is also in the process of creating affordable housing units, to address the housing shortage that makes it difficult for low-income individuals, including Haitian migrants, to access housing.
“Obviously, we have people on the street, we’ve got people in the motels,” said Stelmack.
She added that the area median income for Malden is relatively high, and that those who use Bread of Life’s services are often making 30% of the area median income. The 14 new units that Bread of Life is building are subsidized, and designed for low-income individuals.
“You know, it’s small in the big picture, but for 14 people, it’s gonna make a difference, and that’s kind of how we do everything,” said Stelmack. “Solving the whole problem of hunger and homelessness, you’re not gonna last, but you could make a change for one person. And that’s what we’ve always done at Bread of Life — it’s one meal. It’s one, you know, winter coat,” she added.
Drawing strength from the community
According to Stelmack, the Malden community can support the Haitian migrant families by donating household items to Bread of Life, including food, clothing, and diapers.
Bread of Life regularly posts the food items that they are looking for on their social media pages, and Stelmack said that they are especially in need of snack bars, fruit cups, jellies, soups, dried beans, cereals, juices, and single-serving milks.
Donations of grocery store gift cards for $25 would also allow families to purchase pre- made foods to bring back to the hotels and motels, said Stelmack. In terms of clothing, she added that gloves, warm socks, and sweatshirts would be helpful donation items.
Bread of Life is also in need of more volunteers to help with food delivery services, and a complete list of volunteer opportunities can be found at the Bread of Life website.
Cities should also continue to take steps to address the housing shortage, said Stelmack. “Every city has to look at their own land availability, transportation, infrastructure, zoning and say, you know, where would it be best for us to build more housing? And there’s no blueprint that you could just say, ‘Every city should do this,’” she added.
Fleurissaint said that advocates like himself are suggesting that the state work with the federal government to identify other dwellings that could be converted to shelters, to meet the needs of the growing number of migrant families.
“Other dwellings could be the vacant military bases,” he added, saying, “Unfortunately the state stated that they don’t have the adequate funding.”
Fleurissaint and a group of other advocates are also supporting a bill that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to expedite the processing of work permits for migrants. “Residents and voters can contact their congressional leaders to tell them, number one, to continue to do that,” he said.
Residents can also ask their congressional leaders to create an act at the federal level that would allocate more funding for incoming migrants, said Fleurissaint.
“It’s about Congress continuing to work with the state,” he continued, adding, “Massachusetts has done its best to accommodate those families, almost close to 50 hotels, plus shelters. So they have done their best basically to accommodate, but they cannot go far enough unless they receive funding from the federal government.”
In addition to advocating for these legislative measures, Fleurissaint is working with churches to identify their capacity to provide additional living accommodations to the families, and said that True Alliance Center, Inc. is also seeking people who could teach English as a second language.
“We need people to help them build their resume, for them to get access to a job,” he said. Those interested in working with True Alliance Center, Inc. can get in touch with them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fleurissaint said that it’s also important for residents to understand that the families are seeking to improve the quality of their lives and contribute positively to the economy. “Many residents do not understand what happened to those families who are here — they’re not here to drain the system,” he said.
He concluded, “They are fleeing for their lives, due to unsafe conditions, poverty, hunger. Those are families who would like to work if given opportunity to do so. They are ready to do that.”