Families Begin Exodus from Bedford Shelter to Downtown Lowell Hotel

Almost half of the families who have been residing in the emergency shelter at the Bedford Plaza Hotel for the past several months relocated to a larger facility in downtown Lowell late Tuesday morning.

All other families with school-age children are scheduled to make the move on Thursday, and the remaining residents – about 35 households – expect to depart the shelter next week.

Town and school officials were notified by the state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities last week that the residents – most of them migrants from Haiti and Venezuela seeking asylum – are relocating to the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Inn and Conference Center.

The transition has been anticipated for several weeks, although there were some reports that it would take place after the school year. There are almost 50 children enrolled in the four Bedford schools, and federal law requires that they have the option to remain, as long as the families are without permanent housing. 

Around half of the families were moved on Tuesday, another group will be moved on Thursday with the remained transitioned next week. Photos Mike Rosenberg

Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang spearheaded efforts to ensure that residents of the shelter understand their educational options, which by law include remaining in Bedford as long as the families are without permanent housing.

“At least for the remainder of this school year, we anticipate most families will choose to continue their education in the Bedford Public Schools,” the superintendent wrote in a memorandum to faculty and staff last week. 

Chuang said he has made arrangements with Bedford Charter Service for bus transportation between Lowell and Bedford for elementary and secondary school scheduled to begin next week. Costs are supposed to be reimbursed by the state.

Several teachers were at the shelter at 340 The Great Road on Tuesday to wish the families well and reassure the children that they would see them in class next week.

A shelter transition family communication team comprising Nahomie Georgeon, the town social worker who has been working closely with the families; Gerard Elien, who is the schools’ family liaison; and Seneque Pascal, teaching assistant at Bedford High School, met with each family last week.

“Families that remain temporarily housed over the summer will need to consider multiple factors when deciding where to send their children for school, and the communication team will ensure that each family can make an informed decision,” Chuang advised the school staff. “We are in touch with the Lowell Public Schools to support any families who may decide to transfer their children.”

“The new site in Lowell will be fully staffed with Commonwealth Care Alliance, a state-contracted shelter management organization, which will provide case management and intensive housing search services along with other social services,” Chuang wrote in his memo. Staff members from Commonwealth Care Alliance met with residents as they prepared to depart Bedford on Tuesday.

The state never assigned a management service to the Bedford Plaza Hotel, which was the reason for the consolidation. The residents’ needs were addressed by arms of town government and the schools as well as by faith and other community organizations and volunteers. 

Police Chief John Fisher, who presided at regular emergency management meetings at the shelter, stood by as the residents departed on Tuesday, loading bags and boxes into a rental truck. The families then boarded a private commuter bus.

Bedford Public Schools and other town staff came to see the families off Tuesday morning. Most of the students are expected to remain in Bedford Public Schools at least through the end of this school year. Photos Mike Rosenberg

The superintendent met with families at the shelter on Wednesday and Friday, and shared details with school faculty and staff in the memo. Fisher helped moderate the meetings, and he said, “I saw a lot of hugs.”

The state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities opened the shelter at the Bedford Plaza Hotel last August. 

“It was a shock – they showed up on a Friday night,” Fisher recalled. Near the end of February school and town officials were informed that it would be closed.

Fisher pointed out that many residents are working in the community, and there is uncertainty about their prospects.

“They walk to work, bike to work,” the chief said. At last week’s communal meetings, he noted, “Most of the people were very concerned about getting to their jobs.”

“We are very proud of the way our community has stepped up,” Fisher said. “Early on,” he recalled, “we were scrambling for basic human needs. Nurses were trying to get families immunized. Now my file is probably four inches thick reflecting all of the progress made.”

He lauded the work of Health and Human Services Director Heidi Porter and the social workers on her staff, public safety personnel, educators, the Library, the Recreation Department, and the Department of Public Works, which built an outdoor play area not far from the facility.

“School principals and guidance counselors showed up off hours to make sure that the children are/were educated,” he added. “The work that our school superintendent has done is remarkable.” 

The Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) and other volunteers were central to the outcome, the chief said. “This has been a community-wide effort. During an emergency like this is when you notice that Bedford has a lot of critical partnerships.” 

Maureen Richichi, who chairs the Board of Health, said, “I have had opportunities, as a CERT volunteer, to drive individuals and families to medical appointments, to work in triage during social service and medical provider sessions, and to observe our town government serve these families. I have been so impressed by and appreciative of the warm, accepting, compassionate, and professional ways that our town departments and staff have worked tirelessly to welcome these new neighbors to our community, assist with acclimation to new life situations, and provide necessary services to all.”

Susan Schwartz, her predecessor as board chair, also spent many hours at the shelter with CERT.

“One hotel resident asked me why I and others were helping them, and my response was simply, ‘This is what neighbors do for neighbors, and you are our neighbor,’” Schwartz said.

“I’ve made a bunch of friends down there,” Fisher said. “This community has done a fantastic job meeting the needs of these folks. There’s a lot of credit to go around. These people’s everyday needs were met by Bedford. These are faces that they recognize and they trust.”

Porter said in an email Tuesday evening, “The residents’ move to Lowell is met with mixed emotions. I think we’re all hopeful the services they’ll receive at the state-managed shelter in Lowell will shepherd folks further down the path toward independent housing. And we are grateful for the opportunity to have met, learned from, worried about, and served some 300 new residents to Bedford, if only temporarily.”

“Kudos also to all the Bedford residents who volunteered their time as language tutors, child care providers, and drivers and to those who responded so generously to calls for clothing, meals, and other resources,” Richichi said.

The UMass Lowell facility opened in 1984 as a Hilton Hotel with high hopes for serving the clientele of Wang Laboratories’ adjacent world training center. But eight years later, Wang filed for bankruptcy. The five-story building is now Middlesex Community College’s Cowan Center.

Meanwhile, the hotel underwent several ownerships, most recently Doubletree, until it was purchased by the university nine years ago. For much of the year, it was used as a dormitory. 

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Nancy Daugherty
April 16, 2024 10:45 pm

This makes my heart swell with pride in my Town. It sounds like we are doing all “the right stuff.”

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