Friday May 11, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN

After Tropical Storm Irene last August, Berk shire County was named a federal disaster area. The largest concentration of damaged homes was in the Spruces Mobile Home Park in Williamstown where over 300 of our most vulnerable residents lived. As of this writing, only 64 homes are fit for human habitation again; at least 153 are permanently uninhabitable.

Good neighbors sprang into ac tion, providing emergency housing, food, and other necessities. Williamstown Savings Bank created the Community Fund for the Spruces and distributed more than $80,000 for direct needs. An emergency meeting of the Northern Berk shire Clergy hired an interfaith relief coordinator before we even knew how she would be paid. After a month of serving residents’ immediate needs, we formed Higher Ground, a non-profit long-term recovery group (LTRG) to work with government and NGOs to assist Spru cians on an ongoing basis. Unit ed Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) trainers told us that recovery from such an event takes at least 18 months.

We’re finding this to be true: in our latest survey we discovered that although everyone at Spruces has a roof over their head for now, about 50 people do not consider themselves to be permanently housed. Some are leasing apartments they cannot afford except with the help of dwindling FEMA supplements; others are living in over-crowded temporary conditions with family or friends; and some are living too far away (Pittsfield or Springfield or beyond) from their life-long home.

Higher Ground has recorded more than 2,000 volunteer hours, including direct help, from board members, office helpers, and grant writers. Wages of two paid workers have been covered to this date by grants received from Episcopal Relief & Development (ERD) and Mass. Conference of the United Church of Christ. Lo cally donated funds are conserved for "unmet needs" stemming from the disaster itself and otherwise held toward a low-income housing project that Higher Ground hopes to create with the help of public and private grants.

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The most critical post-disaster need for our economically diverse town is housing. Con trary to some publicly expressed opinions, there is almost no low-cost housing in Northern Berk shire that is both affordable and suitable for an elderly, fixed-income, often handicapped pop ulation. FEMA discovered in six months with us that even with federal money in hand, residents could not find appropriate housing. There is almost no availability in our current stock of low-cost housing. Present housing sites have long waiting lists and many more individuals are "aging into" the system every month. Under the supervision of a trained social worker, volunteer case managers help individual Spruces residents find resources to meet their needs. By far the biggest need is suitable, safe, low-cost housing. We need to pursue many options to come up with a complete multi-pronged solution.

Higher Ground is working as hard as it can to create disaster replacement housing for Spruc es residents. We also are in support of the efforts of the Af fordable Housing Committee to create more affordable housing which will also provide for some of these folk. The Board of Directors of Higher Ground endorses the housing-related articles to be voted on at the May 15 Town Meeting, including the creation of a housing trust.

Although the crisis at the Spruces no longer meets our public eye as we drive back and forth to Stop and Shop, it is not over nor has it been successfully resolved. It is my prayer that the good people of Williamstown will not close their eyes to the plight of the "least of these" and that we will do everything within our power to create homes for those truly in need.

The Rev. Carrie Bail is president of Higher Ground.