PITTSFIELD -- Meeting Friday, about 18 members of a focus group on homelessness issues resolved to develop a daily notification system on available beds and related services.
The group also discussed the proposed use of a former Catholic youth camp for a shelter and a possible agricultural program, and the need for a formal support system in which all parties are aware of every service available for the homeless.
Mary McGinnis, the city's director of administrative services, said that in addition to emergency efforts this winter, there is a recognized need for long-term services to locate or create affordable housing and assist the homeless in finding jobs and acquiring stronger life skills.
McGinnis, who has coordinated ongoing efforts in Pittsfield to address homelessness issues, said some members have discussed the need for better data collection and a communications system for service providers and others, such as police and municipal officials.
Ann Tierney, a nursing instructor at Berkshire Community College, said the college might be able to help with data collection and communications, such as in creation of a website. However, she said that is a long-term goal and proposed a simpler daily email notification system that might be set up this winter.
"This would show where the [available] beds are. That's the first thing that's needed -- to know what's available so people don't have to hunt for beds."
Paul Delauriers, of Berkshire Co-Act and the Pearl Street Center, said he would like to see such a system eventually expand to include a listing for citizens willing to house homeless persons for a time, particularly women with children.
The Pearl Street Center has the ability to screen homeless people for suitability for such a placement, he said.
Tierney said she believes the first component should be to provide daily notifications. "I think we need something we can send around 4 p.m.," she said. "This is a work in progress but communication is really important."
McGinnis said several group members toured a former Christian Youth Center camp recently after a suggestion to use it as a "model farm" where homeless people could learn to live in a structured group and to farm. "The land was pretty wet," she said, likely precluding the agricultural component.
However, Kermit Goodman said he believes a large camp building, which already had bathroom facilities, might be made into a shelter for a large number of people with a modest amount of renovation to make it a year-round facility.
He said a greenhouse might provide the agricultural component.
The Catholic Diocese of Springfield would have to approve use of the property.
Delauriers said other farm sites in the city also might be used, and the owner of unused farmland or buildings might receive a tax break for allowing it to be used for a nonprofit group supporting the homeless.
McGinnis also said she plans to meet this week with real estate agents, housing groups and others to help identify buildings that might be used to create affordable housing.
The group also discussed ways to enhance employment opportunities for low-income people and assist them with financial advice and similar services. Another idea is to seek donations to create financial incentives for people to work their way out of poverty by meeting self-improvement goals.
Noting the several collaboration options discussed, Tierney said what is needed "is a model to go by," so that case workers and others working with the homeless or low-income residents will know the full range of services the community can offer.
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