Ready for the surge

During the pandemic, Ben Szalewicz posts a notice regarding an order by the Salem Board of Health for the Bates Residence Complex at Salem State University. The dorms were transformed into housing health care workers and others on the fronts lines of the COVID-19 fight. This winter, the complex will used to house the homeless.

SALEM — The recently vacated Bates Complex on Salem State University’s South Campus is seeing a last opportunity to support life, specifically those seeking refuge in Massachusetts.

The Bates Complex, a series of seven college-serving residential buildings along Harrison Road, will support homeless families this coming holiday season and winter.

The partnership involves Salem State and city officials with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. It comes as Massachusetts sees a continuing tide of families escaping disasters in other parts of the world and coming to Massachusetts for aid, according to university President John Keenan.

“They’re at a crisis point, in terms of the number of folks coming to Massachusetts that are homeless and, in this particular instance, families that are experiencing homelessness,” Keenan said. “In many ways, this is an expression of our values here at Salem State. We talk to our students all the time about social advocacy and doing the right thing.

“In this particular instance, we just happen to have some empty space that we don’t need on campus,” Keenan added, “and we’re able to help families experiencing homelessness.”

South Campus is currently facing a redevelopment proposal from the state. In September, local housing developers Avalon Bay Communities and WinnCompanies were announced as the successful development team to turn South Campus into a new housing community. That plays out as Salem State reorganizes its North and Central campuses to absorb the programs that once filled out South Campus, as part of a campus redesign known as Project BOLD.

Because of that, the residential buildings at Bates have all emptied, according to Keenan.

“It’s fortuitous,” he said. “Kudos to the Baker administration. They reached out to all the state university presidents, everyone described what was available, and Secretary (James) Peyser was aware of the Bates Complex because of Project BOLD.”

This isn’t the first time the Bates Complex has served a population outside of college students. In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the region and many students returned home, Bates transformed into housing for health care workers and other pandemic front liners. The opportunity proved vital to the region, as nurses tending to patients with a then-unknown virus now had an option for housing that didn’t endanger their families back home.

This time, things are a little more intense.

“I’ve been in the public business now going on three decades,” Keenan said. “This is the first time I’ve had three secretaries call me about one issue — Secretary Peyser, Secretary Sudders, and Secretary Kennealy — all wanting to help out these individuals.”

The trifecta — James Peyser in the Office of Education, Marylou Sudders in Health and Human Services, and Mike Kennealy in Housing and Economic Development — now “really crosses into the Healey-Driscoll administration,” Keenan said.

Mayor Kim Driscoll, now lieutenant-governor elect, celebrated the news this week while describing Salem as “a welcoming and compassionate community.”

“We’re working closely with our state partners, with SSU, and with our school department and other community stakeholders and agencies to help welcome these families and ensure they receive the support they need,” Driscoll said.

The school connection isn’t to be ignored, according to Superintendent Steve Zrike

“We’ve seen numbers of families in need rise in the last few years, and families are struggling more than ever,” Zrike said. “Schools can be an anchor for families. They are a stable place where students can get fed, have strong meaningful relationships with peers, and with educators. Schools provide the stability and predictability that families and students need who have experienced some level of homelessness.”

While it remains unclear how many families coming to Salem will bring children in tow, the district is pledging to support them once they arrive, according to Zrike.

“We’re ready to embrace these incoming families into our community, schools, and classrooms and provide the support necessary for a successful transition,” Zrike said. “We’re excited to welcome our new students who will most certainly enrich our school communities.”

Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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