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Berkshire Immigrant Center Steps Up to Serve Vulnerable in Pandemic
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
06:22AM / Saturday, February 27, 2021
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Some of the items stored at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

Volunteer Alexa Bermudez sorts items donated to the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Keeping food on the table and a roof over your head during the pandemic is nearly impossible for millions of Americans.
 
Now try doing it when you cannot receive even the meager financial assistance that is coming out of Washington, D.C.
 
That is the reality for scores of immigrant families in Berkshire County. The Berkshire Immigrant Center is working to support those families now more than ever, but the non-profit can only do so much.
 
"I receive tons of emails back from clients in all caps saying, 'God bless you,' and 'Thank you,' and then a week later they're asking if we have any more aid available," BIC assistant case worker Emma Lezberg said this week. "We're not meeting the need that's there.
 
"I hate to write back to a client and say we don't have any more funds for you right now."
 
As great as the need has been, the BIC has been able to address part of it through a COVID Relief Fund that it started last March. As of mid-February, the fund had raised more than $350,000 to help support local undocumented families. In December, a separate effort led by BIC volunteers raised nearly $5,000 to send holiday gift cards to the center's clients.
 
"Both our ongoing COVID Relief Fund efforts and our holiday gift card drive show just how committed the community is to showing support for local immigrants," BIC Executive Director Michelle Lopez said in a news release. "Immigrants are vital to our local economy and culture, and the Berkshire Immigrant Center is committed to helping our most vulnerable clients during this difficult time."
 
Lezberg said the Berkshire Immigrant Center has helped about 165 families with emergency funds since March. That includes undocumented clients and clients who have documentation but don't qualify for government assistance for some other reason.
 
"Typically, a lot of the funding we receive has stipulations that say we can't send a check directly to a client," she said. "We have to send money to a landlord or a company. … We'll say, send us a copy of the landlord agreement, the lease, and we can send a check directly to the landlord. Or a client might take a picture of a Berkshire Gas bill and send it to us so we can pay it directly."
 
The BIC is used to such workarounds.
 
"We have a lot of clients who are really struggling but who are applying for asylum or citizenship," Lezberg said. "It's prohibitive, the fees that they have to pay. In the past, if a client needed to apply for something and it was a $500 fee, we couldn't pay it directly but we'd pay $500 toward rent to offset it. Because funds were limited, we couldn't do that too often."
 
Those limited funds were pushed to the limit when the pandemic hit, thus the need for a special relief fund.
 
Immigrant residents of the Berkshires are particularly hard hit by the economic downturn that resulted from government-ordered business closures in the spring … and not just because the initial federal stimulus legislation excluded undocumented residents.
 
"We have a lot of clients who are people working in restaurants or caregivers for people who, in some instances, died of COVID or who don't want people coming into their homes anymore," Lezberg said. "Access to jobs can be difficult anyway, especially for people who don't have driver's licenses, and Massachusetts doesn't allow undocumented people to have driver's licenses.
 
"There already is a limited space in which our clients can look for work, and then the downturn happened."
 
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, are co-sponsoring emergency legislation in Boston to address part of that problem. HD. 448 reads, in part, "Persons who do not provide proof of lawful presence, including those who are ineligible for a Social Security number, shall be eligible for a Massachusetts license if they meet all other qualifications for licensure and provide satisfactory proof to the registrar of identity, date of birth and Massachusetts residency."
 
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the District of Columbia and 16 states, including New York and Connecticut, currently allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
 
Transportation issues also came up with a recent BIC initiative to create a "sort of secondhand store" for clients to connect them with donated clothes and household items. Lezberg said that the center was lucky when its host, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, let the center use auditorium space unused during the pandemic to display items available to BIC's clients.
 
The problem is those clients are spread throughout the county and cannot always get to BIC's East Street home to select items, so staff describe items and talk about sizes over the phone and then deliver them. The center has been trying to scale up the service, and it had a breakthrough this winter.
 
"We have an intern from Williams College who is working to create a website, an online store where clients can go on the website, see the items we have, hit reserve and give us their contact information and whether they have transportation or not," Lezberg said. "The website is built. We just need volunteers to come in and take pictures of all the items."
 
Lezberg said the center's volunteer base was eager to pitch in, just like individuals, businesses and granting agencies were happy to help build up the center's COVID Relief Fund.  
 
Generosity to non-profits like BIC and cooperation among non-profits are two of the tools Berkshire County uses to help support its at-risk residents. And workers in those non-profit agencies hope the spirit of giving outlasts the pandemic because the need surely will.
 
"What I'm particularly worried about is we have a moratorium on evictions right now, but for many months service providers who work with the immigrant community and others have talked quite a bit about making sure our clients can keep up with rent payments because, eventually, the moratorium will be lifted, and we don't want to see a huge wave of evictions," Lezberg said.
 
A coalition of nonprofits has met regularly to try to figure out where the gaps are and how to fill them.
 
"It's wonderful that we can help so many clients right now, but even if our payments are $300 and we can do that each month, rent costs more than $300," Lezberg said. "A lot of our clients are shared with other organizations — $300 from us, another $300 from a different agency. Between all of us, we hope we can be meeting that need."
 
To donate to the Berkshire Immigrant Center, visit its website at berkshireic.org.
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