Denise Sortino of the Elizabeth Freeman Center speaks at a forum on homelessness at the Pearl Street Center in Pittsfield at the First Methodist Church on
Denise Sortino of the Elizabeth Freeman Center speaks at a forum on homelessness at the Pearl Street Center in Pittsfield at the First Methodist Church on Fenn Street. Wednesday Feb. 12, 2014. ( Photo by Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

PITTSFIELD -- Carrie Fotiathis has been shot in the stomach, thrown in jail and locked out of her apartment without notice.

She is also one of many women in Pittsfield who have found themselves homeless and unsure of where to go.

There is limited homeless housing for women with children, according to representatives of local organizations who serve the homeless and vulnerable women.

Paul Deslauriers, executive director of Berkshire Co-Act, organized a meeting of leaders from the organizations on Wednesday at the Pearl Street Center in the United Methodist Church on Fenn Street, to drum up support for a new shelter.

A tough economy, a dearth of affordable housing apartments, a cutoff in unemployment benefits to the long-term jobless, and ongoing domestic abuse incidents continue to contribute to the local problem of homelessness, Deslauriers said.

Barton's Crossing, the main shelter in Pittsfield, is "at full capacity," said Executive Director Erin Forbush. The shelter was formerly run by the Berkshire Community Action Council until funding from the United Way ran out last year over concerns about the organization's former management. Barton's Crossing was taken over by ServiceNet last July, which is based in Northhampton.

"Nobody gets turned away," Forbush said. However, the shelter doesn't take in families. Those under the influence of alcohol or drugs are referred to Soldier On, a veterans assistance group that has added 10 emergency shelter beds for homeless men, Forbush said.

In December, Berkshire Medical Center stepped in with $45,000 in additional funding for ServiceNet so that 10 winter emergency cots could be added to the 16 beds at the shelter.

Forbush said additional cots are brought out if needed. "We don't turn anybody away who does not have a place to stay." However, those who have had violent encounters at the shelter are barred.

Denise Sortino, is the hotline and volunteer coordinator for the Elizabeth Freeman Center on Francis Avenue, which operates a 24-hour hotline for domestic and sexual abuse victims. More than 60 percent of the homeless women they deal with, are victims of violence, she said. There is a growing need for a woman's shelter, she said.

Deslauriers operated a shelter at the Salvation Army last year, but it was shut down by the city's code enforcement office for code violations, Deslauriers said.

Deslauriers was working to open a homeless shelter at Providence Court, which is owned by the Pittsfield Housing Authority and houses senior citizens and the disabled, but was turned down.

Pittsfield Housing Authority Executive Director Charlie Smith, said Berkshire Co-Act's application didn't move forward because it is a "volunteer organization." The proposal, "doesn't mesh up with the Department of Housing and Community Development for how we use the space," he said. "We need people who are going to be responsible."

Deslauriers said he was given a different reason why the application was rejected. He also said his organization provided homeless shelter services for a fraction of what ServiceNet charges the city and state.

Smith said there is consideration for possibly locating a shelter there with a different agency, placing a group home there, or adding more apartments for the elderly.

The Pittsfield Housing Authority controls more than 800 apartments of subsidized housing, and administers approximately 580 Section 8 housing vouchers, Smith said. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers presently has 230 names, with an estimated wait time of five to seven years, "if at all," Smith said. The list was frozen last fall.

Deslauriers said he wants to repair abandoned buildings and turn them into affordable housing units.

Local clergy, like the Rev. Ralph Howe of the First United Methodist Church of Pittsfield, have joined Deslauriers in making a new shelter a priority.

Berkshire Co-Act rents space out of the church, where homeless people can take showers, use computers or a phone. The organization helps find work for the unemployed, plants gardens and grows food to serve food pantries in the city.

"It's part of our ministry to help the part of our community that gets left behind," Howe said. Howe said he is "very distressed with the denial that is going on" regarding the needs of the homeless.

For Foriathis, things are improving. She is sober and staying on a cot in a friend's apartment. She has signed up to move into a small studio. She receives Social Security payments for a bad back, which helps her get by. She is suing the person who she said illegally threw her out of an apartment. She suggests that the city use the old jail on Second Street as a shelter.

"I know a lot of people who live on the streets," she said. A lot of them have substance abuse problems, she said. "It's really not easy when it's cold."

The 24-hour hotline phone number for the Elizabeth Freeman Center is 866-401-2425.

To reach Nathan Mayberg:
nmayberg@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6243