PITTSFIELD -- A citizen focus group on homelessness is pursuing a new shelter option for women with children, among several initiatives to provide housing and support services for those in need.
Mary McGinnis, the city’s director of Administrative Services, said Friday that group members will determine what zoning issues might come into play for such a shelter. "We want to work on that Monday," she said.
Charles L. Smith, the Pittsfield Housing Authority’s executive director and a member of the informal group, has sought permission from state housing officials to use two units at the Providence Court complex to address homelessness.
The cluster housing units have five bedrooms each and communal kitchen and living areas. They do not fit the needs of most potential residents and have been underused, Smith has said.
He said he’d like to change the designation for those units because of what he views as an emergency need in the city.
McGinnis said she expects the housing, if the new use is allowed, will be provided in conjunction with Berkshire Co-Act, a nonprofit charitable organization, and its executive director, Paul Deslauriers. That organization operated a cot shelter for the homeless last winter and recently established a transitional housing program that creates shared living space for individuals in danger of becoming homeless.
Options for sheltering homeless women with children remain limited in the Pittsfield area, McGinnis said, adding, "within the last week, we’ve helped two women with children."
In one case, she said, a member of the group personally provided temporary shelter.
The focus group, which she said expanded after recent publicity of homelessness in the city, now has an email list of more than 20, with people from around the county with a wide range experience, training and expertise.
McGinnis said the focus group will meet next on Friday at 4:30 p.m. at Room 203 at City Hall.
"A lot of this just came together because people read about this and wanted to become involved," she said. "All of these people have great resources and experience."
Group members include religious leaders like the Rev. Quentin Chin of First Baptist Church, Rabbi David Weiner of Congregation Knesset Israel and the Rev. Ralph Howe of First United Methodist Church; city housing specialist Justine Dodds; Ellen Merritt, director of the Christian Center, Brenda Bahnson of Berkshire Health Systems; Shannon McCarthy, director of the McGee Unit at BHS; public defender Alex Piaget; Berkshire Community College nursing instructor Ann Tierney; Sister Colette Hanlon of the pastoral care office at Berkshire Medical Center; Lindsay Errichetto, director of the Family Life Support Center in Adams; Pittsfield Police Lt. Kate O’Brien, Major James Fletcher of the Salvation Army, city Health Department Director Gina Armstrong, attorney Kermit Goodman and several others, McGinnis said.
As an example of the kind of interaction that has burgeoned because of the homelessness problem, McGinnis said she contacted writer Bob Ronnow of Williamstown, a former homeless shelter director who recently wrote a letter on the subject to The Eagle.
Ronnow has written a book on how to address homelessness, which is available at www.ronnowpoetry.com/homeless.html.
"I contacted him and I read his book," McGinnis said. "There are a lot of good points. He recommends attacking the problem early and having the support services in place."