By Kim Siebert MacPhail
A standing-room crowd of over 300 residents flowed into the Town Hall multi-purpose room on October 3 to learn how Town leaders plan to address recent increases in the homeless population at the Bedford Plaza Hotel.
While the meeting provided information from officials from the Schools, Board of Health, Assessor’s office and Police and Fire about how the Town has handled the influx of transitional families—and multiple questions were posed by residents— contributions from State Representative Ken Gordon and Town Manager Rick Reed offered the greatest potential for improving a situation that has become a controversial flashpoint.
Selectmen Vice Chair Margot Fleischman opened the meeting by reading the Town’s “Rules for Civil Discourse.” Fleischman then clarified that the program to house homeless families in hotels such as The Bedford Plaza is a State “Emergency Assistance/Emergency Shelter” program administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) that pays the hotel owner $82 per night per room under the Commonwealth’s “right to shelter” mandate.
“The State is required to provide emergency shelter to families who meet the categorical eligibility requirements defined by the legislative statute,” Fleischman said. “DHCD places homeless families in motels when no shelter space or subsidized affordable housing units are available. Placements are designed to be temporary until other housing is found and DHCD works with families to identify other housing options. Currently in Massachusetts, there are over 2000 families being housed statewide in 53 hotels in 36 communities. Homeless families in hotels have been on waitlists for permanent housing for as long as since 2002.”
Before she introduced State Representative Ken Gordon, Fleischman said that over the summer, the number of homeless families increased statewide and hotel populations— such as those living at The Bedford Plaza— have increased as well. The Plaza began providing shelter for a small number of homeless families in 2011 but the population has grown over time. Currently, there are 88 families in occupancy.
State Representative Ken Gordon, after again emphasizing the State’s “right to shelter” mandate, said that he had met with the House Ways and Means Committee as well as the DHCD. He said that he was able to demonstrate to the State that Bedford was shouldering a disproportionate burden of homeless when compared to other suburban communities and, through this demonstration, secured an agreement with the DHCD to lower the number of families sheltering in Bedford. Gordon said that one family had already moved out of the Plaza and would not be replaced with another until a more proportionate number of homeless families—about 25 versus the current 88— is housed here for the duration of the program.
“By the end of the meeting, we had the assurance from DHCD that they will send no more families into Bedford. What they told us was ‘no back-fill’. That means that once a family receives permanent housing from this transitional facility, another family will not come in to take their place. So eventually, the number of families will start to decline,” Gordon said, adding that the State would also transition some of the families out of Bedford and into other hotels in other communities to accelerate the decline.
Gordon said he had also met with the hotel owner, Sailesh Patel, to tell him that he should not anticipate the same level of income from the State program. “This is not an income stream that he should expect to continue,” Gordon said.
At Gordon’s most recent “office hours” in Bedford on September 16, a code complaint petition was originated by residents and subsequently submitted to Code Enforcement Officer Chris Laskey. Town Manager Rick Reed reported at the meeting that this complaint triggered an inspection of the hotel by Code Enforcement and Laskey found the building’s current practice of housing of occupants “for a period longer than 30 days” to be out of compliance with the building’s zoning permit.
In order to continue to house the occupants for longer periods—as Patel has been doing— investments are necessary, such as sprinkler systems for each individual room rather than in the halls and common rooms only. Gordon reported that Patel indicated that he was unwilling to make this sort of investment and, additionally, that Patel has no plans to appeal the Code Enforcement ruling.
Reed added that the hotel owner has 30 days from receipt of the notification of violation to remedy the situation or the Town could initiate legal action.
In a response to questions about the violation and what might happen if Patel doesn’t comply with the letter from Code Enforcement, Representative Gordon said it was unproductive to speculate on the different courses of action the hotel owner might take. “I want us all in this room to be very careful about commenting on a hypothetical situation because this hasn’t happened yet. Let’s see what happens before we commit Mr. Laskey to a definitive answer to that question. I’d rather not make a prediction that may cause some confusion as the events that we’re hoping—that I was told would happen—play out.”
When asked how the Town will know how the plan is faring to lower the number of families at the hotel, Gordon said that Bedford will know “because the State provides a report that is public information. As your State Representative, all I have to do is ask. That’s how we know there are 88 families there now.”
Editor’s Note: Click here to watch Thursday’s proceedings on Bedford TV.