Sunday, May 26, 2024

An entrance at East Cambridge’s Registry of Deeds Building, now part state emergency family homeless shelter. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Families staying at the overflow shelter at the Registry of Deeds building in East Cambridge will now have weekday access to the building during the day after persistent advocacy from city officials and two state legislators representing Cambridge: Rep. Mike Connolly and Sen. Sal DiDomenico, Connolly announced Friday. Limited overnight hours had caused problems for shelter residents, particularly families with kids newly enrolled in Cambridge schools, whose children could not go to the shelter after school.

Connolly said state officials expanded shelter hours after he, DiDomenico, City Manager Yi-An Huang, and city housing liaison Maura Pensak met last week with Gov. Maura Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll and officials running the temporary overflow shelters established mainly to house recent migrants. The legislators and city officials had asked for weeks that there be 24/7 access.

The East Cambridge shelter opened Dec. 22 in space formerly occupied by the Middlesex Probate and Family Court, now in Woburn. It was one of a number of facilities set up to handle a surge of migrant families that has overwhelmed the state’s shelter system; a state law guarantees shelter to homeless families. Original hours were 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

State officials expected families to stay for a short time and said residents would wait to enroll their kids in school until they found longer-term housing. But fewer than expected families transferred out of the shelter, and a federal law guarantees access to school for homeless children and requires that they get transportation to their original school if they want to stay there after a move. Cambridge began enrolling children staying at the shelter in late January.

Meanwhile, the state had expanded weekday hours at the shelter somewhat, to 6 p.m. to 9 a.m., largely because of pressure from the city and the two legislators, Connolly said. The state and United Way funded a daytime program open to the Cambridge families in Chelsea, run by the community group La Colaborativa. About 20 families, one-third of the total staying in Cambridge, have been using that option, Connolly said.

While weekday hours in Cambridge were limited until now, the shelter has been open 24 hours on snow days, weekends and holidays.

In an interview on WGBH on Feb. 21, Connolly said that Secretary of State William Galvin had not originally wanted a shelter in the Registry building, but changed his position shortly before the broadcast and said he would leave it up to the governor to decide whether to increase hours there. That apparently bore fruit for the city and the two legislators advocating for expanded hours.

With the new hours, the private company running the Cambridge shelter and other overflow shelters, AMI, has agreed to station a staff person at the shelter from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. so families with children in Cambridge schools can get access during the day, Connolly said. Residents who need daytime access because of their work schedules can also get in, he said. And families can return later than the final check-in time if they have school-related activities that keep them out into the evening.

In another change, the state has agreed to hire a new food contractor and security company, Connolly said.

Besides the Chelsea program, families at the shelter can get services at the Somerville YMCA or the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Boston, Connolly said.

Cambridge has invited families to use its libraries, and the city’s Center for Families in the Department of Human Service Programs has offered play groups for preschool children on Wednesday and Thursday mornings at the Frisoli Center, he said. The center is also beginning literacy programs for parents.

The city’s Multi-Service Center and the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee are offering help with immigration issues.

Connolly said the Cambridge Public Health Department, which is part of the Cambridge Health Alliance, would offer immunizations and health care to new families placed at the shelter. In December, Cambridge chief public health officer Derek Neal had said the health department would offer to give vaccines to shelter residents, adding that he feared an outbreak there. A state spokesperson said then that families were vaccinated at state intake centers before going to overflow shelters.