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Norfolk/Wrentham - Local Town Pages

Norfolk Prepares to Host State’s Newest Shelter

The former Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk will be re-purposed to serve as the state’s newest shelter.

More Questions than Answers at May 15 Meeting

By Grace Allen
By all accounts, Norfolk town officials and residents were stunned to learn on May 10 that the town would be host to the state’s newest homeless shelter come mid-June. The Bay State Correctional Center has been unveiled by the Healey Administration as an overflow site for asylum-seekers, homeless families, and migrants, many of whom have been sleeping at Logan Airport.
About 450 people, including 140 families, will be housed at the former prison, which closed in 2015. The exact demographics of the population were not clear, however.
A packed meeting was held on May 15 for residents to ask questions of town officials, who admitted they didn’t have all the answers and were just as surprised as everyone else at the news.
“This is fearful for all of us,” said Select Board Chair Jim Lehan. “I’ve lived here for 40 years. This is a first. This is the hand we were dealt, and we have to figure out how to work through this.”
Officials said the goal was to try and minimize the impact on the community, despite the many unknowns. They pointed out that the site will be staffed around the clock with security. On-site service providers will coordinate access to food and handle cleaning and maintenance. There will be a curfew.
Many of the concerns brought up by residents revolved around the schools, which are already overcrowded. While the exact number oschool age children to be housed at the new shelter is not clear, officials said it’s likely there will be a fair number of children that the town will have to accommodate and educate. The state will provide emergency aid, at a rate of $104 per student per day, to help cover costs. Other monies may potentially be available.
Anita Mecklenburg, Vice Chair of the Select Board, said the district’s schools are committed to ensuring they are a safe and welcoming space for any new students.
Another concern is the impact on public safety. Fire Chief Erron Kinney said colleagues in other towns with shelters have seen an increase in aid calls, noting that shelter populations may not have had preventative health care and be at more risk of illness. He pointed out that even a 5 to 10% increase in calls will affect response times and potentially endanger the Norfolk community, which numbers about 11,000 people.
Residents at the meeting questioned the state’s assertion that background checks were performed on shelter residents, and that vaccinations were up to date. 
The decommissioned prison, located about two miles from the town center on a road with no sidewalks, will need extensive renovations before it can house families in the dormitory-like setting. The facility contains a cafeteria, gymnasium, common rooms, and offices that will be used for administrative activities. There are showers and bathrooms on each floor. The barbed wire surrounding the site will be removed, and the gates will remain open so families can come and go.
The emergency shelter is expected to operate for six to 12 months, according to state officials. 
Massachusetts is a “right-to-shelter” state, which means the state must provide living spaces for pregnant women and families with children. The influx of migrants coming into the state, plus a growing body of homeless Massachusetts residents, has strained the shelter system. Temporary shelter sites have been opening in cities and towns across the region.
Justin Casanova-Davis, Norfolk’s town administrator, said the state will hold community forums in early June, to further address residents’ concerns. He said the town’s website,, will be updated with any new information.
Lehan said the police and fire chiefs, school department heads, and other town officials will meet regularly to discuss the impacts and logistical challenges of the state’s plan.
“We’ll get nowhere if we approach this in an adversarial way [with the state],” said Lehan. “We didn’t ask for this challenge, but how we respond to this challenge is entirely in our control.”