Community responders making their mark

  • Earl Miller is the director of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service in Amherst. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 01, 2023

AMHERST — Making sure that children of undocumented immigrants get to school, providing rides for people to urgent medical appointments and interacting with people living on the streets and in the woods are among tasks a new municipal department has undertaken over its first five months.

In the time Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service have been up and running, Earl Miller, the director, said the eight responders, in four teams, have been busy and using harm-reduction principles in their work.

“We haven’t had to say no to anyone yet,” Miller said during a recent overview and update given to the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee.

Miller said one of the accomplishments has been making contact with all houseless people so they know the services that are available to them, and doing “old school street social work.”

This is paying off, he said, as there are fewer people hanging out on the streets this winter than had been over the summer.

“We’ve gotten dozens of people off the streets,” Miller said. “We’ve moved dozens of people into shelters.”

The department’s mission is also to prevent crises and people ending up in a bad situation. That can be time-consuming, though, especially with complicated families and individuals whose issues can’t be solved in a few minutes.

“We are a slow approach, and I think there’s value in that,” Miller said.

Currently, the teams are in operation from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. the remaining weekdays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The weekend hours only recently started, but they give CRESS the chance to do more outreach and participate in a community service project partnership with the restorative justice program at the public schools.

While funded by the town and grants, Miller said getting more financial support will be critical. “We are aggressively pursuing grant funding,” Miller said.

Members of the committee asked Miller why he has spoken at business-community events organized by the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District. Miller said he wants people to know what CRESS is doing and how it can supplement conventional law enforcement.

“My policy is I will not turn down an opportunity to speak to any group, anywhere,” Miller said. “If I’’m invited, I’ll show up.”

Jennifer Moyston, assistant director of the town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion department, said Miller’s work can offer businesses a good understanding of what it means to have homeless people in town.

The committee suggested scheduling community sessions where Miller would be invited to listen to feedback and suggestions for how CRESS is running.

Miller said he would welcome any opportunity to engage with residents.

“I don’t think there’s ever a bad time to listen to our community,” Miller said.