Porter Feels ‘Hopeful’ As She Oversees Response to Migrants

September 20, 2023
Heidi Porter, Bedford Health and Human Services Director gave an update on Monday night to the Board of Health on the efforts of the town to support the almost 250 migrants housed at the Bedford Plaza Hotel. Staff Image.

The Bedford Plaza Hotel is serving as an emergency shelter for almost 250 migrants, and the number continues to grow. The state agencies placing the migrants did not provide shelter management, so it’s up to town government and volunteers.

The point person for these efforts, Health and Human Services Director Heidi Porter, told the Board of Health on Monday, “Every day, we get a little more hopeful.”

Porter briefed the board Monday on efforts that cover a spectrum of needs: medical, educational, nutritional, transportation, social. 

“I seem to have become the face of this response,” she quipped.

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Asked by member Ann Kiessling what percentage of her professional time this is taking, Porter said at least half. The percentage is closer to 80 for the town social workers, she added, and they are now starting to see a waitlist of local cases.

“We are fortunate that we have a Health and Human Services Department and a social work team in place,” Porter testified. “Other communities just don’t have the capacity.”

The department’s social workers “have been doing so much working with these folks, family by family, to start gaining that independence,” Porter said, adding that the migrants “want to get jobs.” 

Health board Chair Susan Schwartz said the social workers “went room by room and asked for sizes of clothing. They did a complete inventory and it continues to evolve.”

Porter told the board that there are 243 residents, comprising 77 families, which under the shelter definition includes pregnant women as well as parents and children. Two of the families are large enough to require two rooms, she said. 

“Probably half are under 18,” she said of the population. Another seven families are expected this week, she continued, and the owner of the hotel has told state officials he is willing to commit 95 of the 99 guest rooms.

There are 45 school-age children, “but that will change.” School officials are at the hotel every Wednesday to register new students, who begin classes the following Monday.

Last week, “We had a community forum to let them know: ‘This is what we know and please tell us how we can help,’” Porter said. She noted that among the residents is a high-school teacher who can understand English, Haitian Creole, Spanish, and Portuguese. “He’s like the mayor of the hotel,” she laughed.

Porter said her staff keeps track of who is sheltering at the Bedford Plaza. 

“We want to make sure there is no trafficking going on,” she said. “If people say they are leaving for good, we want to make sure we have forwarding addresses. Our social workers have worked really hard to set them up with benefits.”

The director said she meets on Zoom with state health officials twice a week. Bedford volunteers “have been taking some people to Urgent Care or the Emergency room, but given the population, we are working through it,” she said.

“We had impacted wisdom teeth, sickle cell medicine, some pretty significant other health concerns,” Porter said. She added that “the state sent a strike team out to meet with prenatal women.” Middlesex Community College “is offering the services of their dental clinic in Lowell.” 

Volunteers and staff are involved with a variety of responses. 

“Our CERT team and the Neighbor Brigade jumped in to give rides. The Fire Department did an educational session on how to install a car seat; we are asking parents to take ownership of that.” Also, “We have a whole cadre of translators,” the director noted, managed by school officials. 

“We are having a lot of issues with the food,” Porter told the board. She said a caterer contracted by state agencies is delivering two meals a day to the shelter, one “moderately hot” and the other cold. Often, she said, the food is not “culturally appropriate,” and there is not enough or too much. “We want to help folks adjust to different types of food, but the caterer should be more mindful of recipes,” Porter said.

The Bedford Food Bank is supplementing those provisions, she noted, as each room is equipped with a small refrigerator and a microwave.

Porter also reported that the state Department of Public Health “has a four-phase plan for vaccinations, and they let us know when they need our help.” A state contractor assesses vaccination records and is also testing children for lead.

Bedford is getting support from the regional nursing team of the Great Meadows Public Health Collaborative, Porter said. “They come in every week to do nursing triage services.”

“People are so wonderful – they really want to help,” said Marisa Morello, Assistant Health Director. “A lot of people want to donate their time for rides.” Schwartz said the staff has been “phenomenal.” She and Morello urged residents to access the special website to see what’s needed: https://www.bedfordma.gov/844/5935/Emergency-Shelter-Response

Porter said that the Rev. John Castricum, minister at the First Church of Christ, Congregational, organized an adult clothing drive. “When someone can do something seamlessly, I am so grateful,” Porter said. 

Board member Maureen Richichi said she has been driving women to obstetrical appointments, and that’s more than a taxi service. “You can’t just leave them off. They don’t even know where they’re going. Somebody has got to be with them.”

There are National Guard personnel on the premises six hours a day, Porter said, and Police Chief John Fisher “has been fantastic” serving as liaison with them. Guardsmen were supposed to coordinate transportation, she said, but “I had to reset my expectations.”

“We are looking to hire transportation ourselves,” Porter said, “essentially rent another BLT,” to bring refugees to regional sign-up centers for benefits.

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