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An Emergency Shelter in Cambridge Was Meant To Be Transitory. Families Have Stayed for Weeks.

The Massachusetts state government opened an overnight shelter for unhoused families in East Cambridge.
The Massachusetts state government opened an overnight shelter for unhoused families in East Cambridge. By Marina Qu
By Laurel M. Shugart and Olivia W. Zheng, Crimson Staff Writers

A temporary homeless shelter at the Cambridge Registry of Deeds building was only meant to house families for five to ten days. But a shortage of permanent shelter options means that most families have remained there since December.

The Massachusetts state government opened the site on Dec. 22 to accommodate unhoused families on the waitlist for the Emergency Assistance program, which organizes shelter for unhoused and migrant families eligible for housing under the state’s 1983 “right to shelter” law.

Families were originally intended to transition to more permanent EA shelter units within days, but an influx of applicants and a lack of units has meant the state is unable to transition families into more permanent housing, City Housing Liaison Maura Pensak told the Cambridge City Council during a Monday meeting.

Pensak said the site currently holds 56 families totaling 190 individuals, just shy of its total capacity of 200 people. The majority of the families currently staying in the shelter have been there since the shelter opened, she said.

Over 450 families are currently on the program’s statewide waitlist, and new families are applying for the program far faster than state officials’ capacity to provide EA units for them.

The temporary shelter is open 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. on weekdays, when the courthouse is in operation, and all day on weekends and holidays.

However, Pensak said the city is working with state officials to keep the shelter open 24/7.

“The fact is, there is space at the registry,” Pensak said. “The whole wing of the courthouse has been created as a separate space for these families. So it’s very removed from the operations of the Registry of Deeds.”

Cambridge Public Schools have also started enrolling school-age children staying in the shelter — a marked shift from the city’s plans when the shelter originally opened. The school district is required to guarantee school enrollment for unhoused children regardless of circumstance under federal law.

In an email, Sujata Wycoff, a CPS spokesperson, declined to say how many students from the shelter were being enrolled citing privacy concerns, but wrote that registering unhoused children is “a routine matter for Cambridge Public Schools.”

“We have not experienced a significant disruption to our operations,” Wycoff added. “Our Student Registration Center, district and building leaders, educators, and support staff have created a seamless process to ensure we are enrolling students quickly and meeting their needs while creating a welcoming environment.”

Though the site offers meals, laundry, and legal assistance, it does not include showers.

Originally, the site provided showers through a partnership with MIT. However, as MIT students returned from winter break, residents have been able to shower at Bunker Hill Community College, according to Pensak.

“I think the city has really deployed significant support and resources and the community has also been really supportive and welcoming,” Pensak said. “I think our Cambridge community, our village, has stepped up to respond to the crisis.”

—Staff writer Laurel M. Shugart can be reached at Follow them on X @laurelmshugart or on Threads @laurel.shugart.

—Staff writer Olivia W. Zheng can be reached at Follow her on X @oliviawzg.

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