The tension began in September, at a routine School Committee meeting, when Bedford residents learned that about 90 homeless families were living at the Bedford Plaza Hotel.
As the homeless population around the state spiked, state housing officials filled the rooms at the hotel on Great Road. The town of 14,500 residents found itself with one of the state’s largest populations of homeless families living in hotels or motels.
“Compared to other towns, when you took into account the population, Bedford had basically twice the number as anyone else,” said state Representative Ken Gordon, a Democrat who lives in town.
The families had 108 school-age children; about half were enrolled in Bedford schools, and the others were commuting to schools in communities where they previously lived.
Gordon talked to state officials, who agreed to move some of the families into other housing. By late last month — even as the number of homeless families around the state living in motels and hotels grew to 2,119 — the number of families living in the Bedford Plaza had dropped to 65.
“We were concerned about the high number of families in the hotel,” said Aaron Gornstein, the state’s undersecretary for housing.
Massachusetts is the only state with a law requiring it to provide emergency housing to anyone who qualifies, and officials must act quickly to find shelter.
“Because we have to respond to the immediate crisis, we don’t have time to plan out a whole strategy,” Gornstein said.
Starting in midsummer, a growing number of families in Massachusetts found themselves in crisis. The state sends homeless families to hotels and motels, paying $82 a night, only as a last resort, when other shelters are full. But with a record number of families seeking help, the state increasingly relied on hotel rooms.
Gornstein cited a variety of reasons for the increase in need, including many families having exhausted stays with relatives; others were fleeing domestic violence, some were low-wage workers who could not afford rising rents, and some had lower benefits under federal cuts from sequestration.
In Bedford, some residents grew anxious about the large numbers of homeless families in the community, and called Town Hall to express concerns about increased crime, prostitution, and gangs. The police chief had said those concerns were unfounded.
But since 30 of the 46 new children attending Bedford’s schools did not speak English as their first language, the district’s staff was stretched, said Jon Sills, the district’s superintendent.
The school system has also struggled to pay the expensive transportation fees to bus students to other districts. Federal law requires homeless students to be allowed to continue in one school, even if they move out of town. The host community must cover half of the cost of transportation, until they are reimbursed at the end of the year by the state.
Since September, Bedford has spent about $115,800 to provide rides for homeless students attending other school districts. Even though the money will be repaid, the process can create cash-flow problems for a small town, Gordon said.
Housing officials have been trying to end the state’s reliance on hotels and motels for homeless families. But this summer, the number of homeless families began growing once again.
Sills and others point out that it is difficult for families with children living in a single room for months at a time, with no cooking facilities other than a microwave.
“We do see some challenges in terms of helping to support the kids academically,” Sills said. “They’ve been dislocated. Some of them have missed some schooling. They don’t have great conditions to do their school work in.”
The Bedford Plaza does not have study space for the students and the rooms are small, he said.
The hotel is not within walking distance of parks or playgrounds, said Selectman Mike Rosenberg.
“The concern is that you have a couple hundred people that are stashed away in the motel whose quality of life is compromised,” he said.
Bedford officials say they are not looking to see all of the homeless families moved out of the hotel. But they would like to see the number lowered, so the ratio to the town’s total population is no longer so much larger than any other community in the state.
Gordon said state officials promised no new families would be settled in Bedford, at least until the recent numbers are reduced considerably. The officials said they would like to see the money to assist the homeless being spent more efficiently.
“The insanity of all this is the state is paying $80 a night for a family for a room,” or about $2,400 a month, Sills said, “which could be the rent on a decent apartment.”
And, he added, the tab does not include the tens of thousands of dollars a month for transporting students to school.
“Many of the families in Bedford are coming from Chelsea and Boston,” Sills said. “Families consider their stay in Bedford to be temporary and don’t want to uproot their kids.”
Some people in Bedford also began reaching out to the families.
The hotel had no washing machines or dryers available to residents, and there is no laundromat in town. Local churches contributed money toward a washer and dryer for the hotel.
Residents also brought home-cooked food to the families. And since Bedford has little public transportation, volunteers drove adults to parent-teacher conferences.
“From a human-interest perspective, if people just imagine as parents all the things they want their kids to do,” Sills said. “There’s no playground. They’re just operating out of a room.”