Town Departments, Schools Mobilize in Response to Refugees’ Needs

August 30, 2023
A daily working group including representatives from schools, public health, youth and family services, recreation, police, and fire, as well as the town manager’s office are meeting to support refugee families in emergency shelter at the Bedford Plaza Hotel. Photo Robert Dorer

Town government is mobilizing on several levels in response to the needs of almost three dozen refugee families in emergency shelter at the Bedford Plaza Hotel.

Interim Town Manager Colleen Doyle told the Select Board on Monday that an interdepartmental working group meets daily to coordinate assistance and services. Represented are schools, public health, youth and family services, recreation, police, and fire, as well as the town manager’s office.

“The first priority was medical care and food,” said Doyle, and now the focus is transitioning to transportation and clothing.

Earlier this month, state agencies placed 26 families, most of them from Haiti, under the “right to shelter” law for families with children or pregnant women. Over the weekend, an additional nine families joined them, Health and Human Services Director Heidi Porter said on Tuesday afternoon.

The Health and Human Services Department is seeking a full-time coordinator for the various governmental and volunteer efforts. The position is posted on the town website as a social worker, but Porter said that isn’t a prerequisite. 

The job description includes “coordinate volunteer response to the emergency shelter.” The job posting on the town website notes that candidates who speak  Haitian Creole and/or Spanish are preferred.

The nine-month contract position will be paid from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, Doyle said. “What we’re running into is there are just not enough hours in the day. A lot of people are calling, but we can’t respond to everybody.”

Doyle said on Tuesday she would welcome “residents who are willing to take on a volunteer coordination role” unpaid. “There are a lot of people wanting to help. We’re very appreciative of that effort and we need to make it more streamlined.”

She added, “This is an evolving situation so needs change, but the need for volunteer coordination has been consistent.” 

The range of efforts by town departments is described at https://www.bedfordma.gov/844/5935/Emergency-Shelter-Response.  A description released by the town late Monday provided several details:

  • “In accordance with state and federal law, the Bedford Public Schools are working to enroll all school-age children and provide them and their families with appropriate English learner and other support to begin the school year successfully. The state is providing education aid to communities hosting homeless families at $18,000 per pupil per year.” There are at least 17 school-age children now at the hotel.
  • Checks and “gift cards to Amazon.com or nearby businesses can be dropped off at the Bedford Health Department” in Town Center during regular business hours. They may also be mailed to the Health Department, or deposited in the drop box next to the Town Hall entrance. The town hopes to soon announce an online donation option. Residents should not drop off anything at the hotel.
  • “To house families for longer than 30 days, the hotel must comply with Groups R-1 and R-2 in the International Building Code. The code enforcement director has determined that the Bedford Plaza Hotel does comply with both groups. The Town expects and is prepared to support and serve additional families.”
  • There is a need for Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Spanish interpreters. Enid DeCastro of the schools’ special education staff is the contact person. 

The communication from the town noted that “community organizations, houses of worship, and individuals have expressed eagerness to help.” Indeed, members of the Interfaith Clergy Network met on Monday with Porter and Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang. 

The network released a statement Tuesday that applauded the role of town officials and staff. “Our diverse traditions are united in the moral imperative to welcome strangers and care for vulnerable neighbors in our midst with respect and with love,” said the statement, signed by the spiritual leaders of three local and three regional houses of worship, as well as by ministers serving the VA Hospital and Carleton-Willard Village.

“We commit ourselves and our faith communities to assist in our town’s efforts to provide support in the weeks ahead, as we welcome these individuals and families into the community we share. And we invite all those who call Bedford ‘home’ to do so as well,” the clergy declared.   

According to town officials, Bedford Plaza has made space available for play space and for residents to meet with social workers and other staff. The Rotary Club of Bedford donated funds for car seats. Bedford’s CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and the Neighbor Brigade have been assisting with transportation for medical appointments. The town manager’s office has information on how residents can join CERT.

The Bedford Food Bank is also assisting families. The Boston branch of Cradles to Crayons is providing clothing and diapers. 

Town social workers are working to connect families to state services that include MassHealth and SNAP benefits. The town is also coordinating with the legislative delegation and state officials and is connecting with other municipalities hosting emergency shelters.  

The statement said the town “will continue to seek additional state and federal funding as town services are impacted.”

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