Sunday October 14, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- On any night of the year, at least five South Berkshire residents are living unsheltered or in cars, belying the area’s reputation as a haven for the affluent.

Many more are "couch-surfing," as Construct Inc. Executive Director Cara Davis described it -- people living in a home without a room of their own, "moving from one house to another so they don’t overstay their welcome."

The organization, founded in 1968 and headed by Davis for 24 years, stages its annual Walk to Prevent Home lessness on Sunday, Oct. 21, to raise up to $60,000 to help shelter the homeless, aid the unemployed in finding work, and provide emergency assistance to residents challenged by the economy.

To encourage family participation, the walk has been shortened to 3.5 miles, from the Butternut ski area to Mahaiwe Street in downtown Great Barrington, Davis said.

Typically, the event draws 200 to 250 walkers, depending on the weather. Participants are sponsored by friends, family members or their employers. Some businesses form teams for the event.

"The walk is a wonderful opportunity for families with children and youth to do something for their community together, to introduce young people to giving, and raise awareness of homelessness," Davis said. "As beautiful and affluent as this South Berkshire community is, there are unfortunately people who struggle, most working, but some who may be disabled, elderly or single parents."

Describing the extent of outright homelessness, Davis explained that some residents place their children with friends or relatives and live in vehicles, or at campgrounds.

Construct operates two houses for the homeless on Mahaiwe Street -- one for men, the other for women -- with a total of 10 bedrooms. There’s a waiting list of 11 people, Davis said.

Shelter residents can stay for three months and then apply for a six-month extension until they can obtain work, save money and rent an apartment.

Many clients find it difficult to seek help, Davis said.

"People who have never needed help in their lives fought to stay afloat, drained their savings and finally had to turn to us for help," she said. "It’s very hard for someone to come in and ask. It’s just a matter of pride. I sit with people who weep because it’s so hard."

According to Davis, the recession has worsened the problem as many seasonal workers and self-employed people -- carpenters, contractors, landscapers, housekeepers -- lost their jobs.

Competition became severe for positions in restaurants, retail stores, fast-food franchises and big-box stores, Davis said.

"We’re still feeling the effects, though people are starting to get back to work," Davis said. She also said that many jobs don’t pay enough to cover housing costs in South County.

Typically, Construct fields 25 to 30 inquiries a day and works closely with about 20 people each week. Assistance includes searches for housing, financial guidance, employment coaching, networking and job searches.

Each year, on a budget of about $480,000, Construct serves 600 to 625 clients, Davis said.

The nonprofit has lost some grants and needs to diversify its funding sources.

"We have a very generous South Berkshire community that gives when we ask," said Davis. "Last year and this year have been tough."

Funding for a needy family or individual averages around $300, Davis said, and can be directed toward overdue rent bills, emergency car repairs, help with heating bills, as well as aid to stave off eviction and prevent utility shut-offs.

The goal, she emphasized, is to stabilize a family in order to avert homelessness.

Davis described Construct’s guiding principle as "ensuring that the South Berkshire community is socially healthy and vibrant, economically diversified" so local residents can afford to live in a region with high housing prices and related living costs.

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.

If you go . . .

n What: 24th annual Construct Inc. Walk to Prevent Homelessness.

n Where: Begins at Ski Butternut, Route 23, Great Barrington. Ends at Construct, 41 Mahaiwe St. It’s a 3.5-mile, family-friendly walk.

n When: Sunday, Oct. 21, 1 p.m. Registration at 12:30.

n Mission: To raise up to $60,000 through sponsorships of walkers by friends, families or businesses. Proceeds aid people facing housing, heating or food emergencies.

n Information: (413) 528-1985 or email
construct12@yahoo.com. On line: www.construct inc.org.