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Compassion vies with concern, confusion over migrant shelter at ‘the Cass’

Mandile Mpofu
Compassion vies with concern, confusion over migrant shelter at ‘the Cass’
Mayor Michelle Wu joins Governor Maura Healey and other elected officials and civic leaders visiting the Melnea Cass Recreational Complex in Roxbury on Jan. 31. PHOTO: MIKE MEJIA

Every year, Boston United Track & Cross Country Club, a nonprofit offering free track-and-field training, applies for a permit to use the state-run Melnea A. Cass Recreational Complex in Roxbury. So, when Sekou Dilday, a track coach and treasurer with the group, discovered that their permit had been abruptly cancelled, he was confused.

Dilday and other coaches soon began to hear about plans to use “the Cass,” as it’s known, as a temporary shelter to house migrant families who had for days been sleeping on the floors of Logan Airport due to Massachusetts’ overflowing shelters. Gov. Maura Healey made the plans official on Jan. 29, setting off a wave of mixed reactions from community members over the impact on programs using the year-round facility.

“We all sympathize with the migrant crisis. It tugs all of our heartstrings to hear about mothers and young children sleeping on the floor in Terminal E, so we wanted a solution for those families,” said Dilday. “And if the decision is they have to use the Cass center because that’s the best facility that’s available, we kind of understand that. Just don’t leave us out in the cold.”

Dilday said he and his colleagues felt helpless because “this was a decision that was over our heads,” a sentiment that reverberated throughout the community following the announcement. He said staff members were upset by the decision being made without their input, and by the possibility of having to suspend practices for aspiring young runners and field athletes.

The Melnea Cass Recreational Complex in Roxbury, prepared to receive migrant families. PHOTO: MIKE MEJIA

More than a week after Healey’s announcement, the Roxbury community and its leaders are still grappling with mixed emotions over the Cass takeover.

“People are compassionate, people are thoughtful, people care,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick of Twelfth Baptist Church. Roxbury community members are balancing their eagerness to help the migrant community with the fact that Roxbury has “historically been underinvested [in],” he said, pointing to food and housing insecurity in the community.

Meanwhile, there is a perception that state officials overlook wealthier and whiter towns when it comes to the burden of housing the surge of migrants coming across the southern border and traveling to Massachusetts.

Bodrick said community members were displeased because there is a “history of Roxbury not always getting the benefit and respect of process before decisions are made,” yet they have still shown interest in helping the migrant families in need. Twelfth Baptist Church, for example, is preparing to receive donations of clothing and food.

“Beyond the politics, we’re going to put our focus on the people,” he said.

Simultaneously, community members are “processing” that the Cass, an important community resource, will be unavailable for the coming months, he said.

Alejandro Olayo-Méndez, an assistant professor at the Boston College School of Social Work whose research focuses on migrants and refugees, said the conversations happening in Roxbury are “fair,” but that it’s also important to remember that the urgency of the moment may trigger inadvertent effects.

“No matter the setting in which we are, we need to understand that the current movement of migrants or the current arrivals, no matter what nationality, is truly a crisis,” he said. “So crises, for the most part, are going to disrupt our regular lives.”

In a Jan. 29 letter obtained by the Banner, Healey pledged to work with Boston elected officials to relocate the community programs that previously used the Cass Complex. The Boston United Track & Cross Country Club, for example, has since been moved to an early-morning time slot at the Reggie Lewis Track & Athletic Center. In the letter addressed to lawmakers, Healey wrote that the Cass Complex would be in use no later than May 31 and would reopen to the community by June.

Boston City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said that the circumstances under which Healey had to make the decision were not ideal, and that she believed Healey when she said “her hands were tied.” The District 7 councilor said she will not apologize for helping the migrant families, especially given her Cape Verdean background. She also said she didn’t think the people in Roxbury were in opposition of supporting the migrant population, but were instead concerned about the impact.

In a Jan. 31 press conference held during a walk-through of the Cass, Fernandes Anderson said she aims to ensure transparency going forward. In a later interview, she said she would keep the community abreast through her monthly newsletter, website and newly developed mobile app, Boston District 7 App, adding that she plans to hold another listening session within the next couple of weeks and one every other month thereafter.

With the spotlight on her district, Fernandes Anderson said she hopes lawmakers will use the moment to advocate for investments in Roxbury.

“What does reconciliation mean? It means that we have to speak the truth about the past harms, and it means that we have to be intentional in fixing and repairing it,” she said. “I don’t see that happening. I see that happening on a superficial level, but I don’t see that happening in a real way that’s going to fight displacement, that’s going to keep Black people in Boston.”

She acknowledged Healey’s commitment to repairing the Cass Center before its summer reopening and emphasized that local and minority-owned businesses were hired to provide the daily services required at the temporary shelter.

The Rev. Art Gordon of the St. John Missionary Baptist Church said the community “has a right to not only have their voices heard, but to express concern,” given its history of not having its demands or needs met in a timely manner. He said a town hall should be held for community members to express their concerns. But Gordon, who moved from Georgia to Boston, also pointed to Roxbury’s standing as a place of refuge and safety for people of color from various backgrounds.

“Roxbury is a welcoming and inclusive community and many of the migrants will find community here,” he said. “But at the same time, this community does need help and resources both from the federal and state level to make sure that there’s an increase in housing affordability, homeownership, economic opportunity, and better schools.”

Melnea A. Cass Recreational Complex, migrant shelter, migrants, roxbury