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‘Unexpected influx’: Norfolk officials share concerns about turning former state prison into shelter

NORFOLK, Mass. — Town officials will meet in the coming days to discuss the impacts to the community of the state using the former Bay State Correctional Center as an emergency shelter amid a migrant crisis.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, we’ve got to work with our police chief, fire chief, all of our school superintendents, make sure we have a plan,” said Jim Lehan, Norfolk Select board member. “But there’s no point in putting a plan together until we know what it is we’re planning for.”

Gov. Maura Healey’s office says the former state prison will become an emergency shelter that will be able to house 140 families – or up to 450 people.

Many of them are migrants who have been sleeping at Logan Airport.

“You do the math, you figure 150 families, you’ve got two per family, plus kids, so that could be anywhere from 100 to 150 kids,” said Lehan. “I don’t know the age, we don’t know any of this, we don’t know whether it’s elementary or high school.”

Parents are also concerned since they say this regional school district is already at capacity.

“There’s so many kids now and then this on top of it, it’s going to be tough – and like where are they putting them? There’s no place for them to go,” said Eric Franz, a Norfolk parent.

The former prison is in a rural area with no sidewalks for the nearly two mile walk to town.

“And when they get here, there are no stores other than the Walgreens,” said Lehan.

The closest grocery store is about four to five miles away in surrounding towns like Foxboro, Millis, Walpole and Medfield.

The state says they will provide transportation on site as well as services to help those homeless families get back on track.

“We need to focus on solutions and talk about concerns, we have to stay away from the political agenda because right now that serves no purpose,” said Lehan.

The state says this emergency shelter should be temporary and will likely open next month for anywhere from six to 12 months.

In a statement Monday, Norfolk town officials said they were informed Friday of the state’s decision to use the former state prison as an emergency shelter, and they shared their concerns about how the new emergency shelter would impact local services.

“An unexpected influx of a large number of families poses many logistical challenges to Norfolk,” the town’s statement said.

The former minimum security prison shuttered in 2015. It will now house up to 140 families in dorm rooms, with each floor having its own bathrooms and showers, state officials said. The site also has a cafeteria, a gymnasium, a large common room and offices that will be used for case management and administrative activities.

Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll spoke with town officials on Saturday. Town officials said they were told that the shelter will be managed 24/7 by a shelter operator hired by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services through competitive bid.

“This decision was made as part of its ongoing response to the number of migrant families arriving in Massachusetts. The Town had no role in this decision and was not consulted prior,” town officials said.

Norfolk is not alone.

In March, Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell said city officials received no advance notice when they learned in April 2023 that the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center at 700 Myles Standish Boulevard began housing 18 migrant families.

A short time later, the entire hotel became occupied by more than 100 families “and ceased operating as a hotel,” and city regulators quickly became concerned that the hotel was operating greatly above its occupancy limits, O’Connell earlier said.

“The city was given no advance notice nor an opportunity to express our concerns,” O’Connell earlier said, and Taunton later filed a lawsuit against the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center operators for nonpayment of fines due to code violations for housing too many migrants at the property.

Meanwhile, the Norfolk Select Board will be holding a meeting Wednesday night to discuss some of their concerns.

Norfolk Town Administrator Justin Casanova-Davis, Police Chief Timothy Heinz, Fire Chief Erron Kinney, Norfolk School Superintendent Ingrid Allardi, King Philip Superintendent Rich Drolet, and other department leaders “will be meeting regularly in the coming days,” the town’s statement said.

“This group will develop a comprehensive list of potential impacts to the town and develop strategies to continue to deliver regular municipal services without interruption,” the statement said. “We also will have regular conversations with state officials to ensure the Town’s concerns are heard, and to work collaboratively on creative solutions that are in the best interests of Norfolk.”

“Most importantly, the Select Board and Town staff are committed to transparency and regular updates to the community as we work through this transition,” the statement said.

Anyone with questions may contact Town Administrator Justin Casanova-Davis at jcasanovadavis@norfolk.ma.us.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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