Life on the streets: Research project gives Pittsfield native insight into homelessness
PITTSFIELD — When Union College senior Lindsey Hunt wanted to learn about the lives of homeless people, she didn't just surf through the research of others; she immersed herself in that life last winter in her hometown of Pittsfield.
Now a 22-year-old graduate who works at the Brien Center, Hunt received a bachelor's degree in anthropology in June after completing a year-long thesis project on homelessness. That included four months last fall and winter of hitting the streets in downtown Pittsfield, meeting homeless people and asking them to talk about their daily lives.
"I have always been swayed by wanting to give voice to those who aren't given one," she said. "And I wanted to target a specific vulnerable population."
Dressing simply, leaving her winter coat at home and riding the bus every day rather than driving a car, Hunt said she began by visiting the former Pearl Street Day Center, where she began to meet and get to know the city's homeless.
"I would walk with them, go to dinners, kind of network my way," she said. "I spent Thanksgiving with them, Christmas with them, New Year's Day."
At one point in her 153-page report, Hunt describes a long day for a homeless person that begins with leaving the Barton's Crossing shelter in frigid early morning temperatures. She asks the reader to imagine walking along Route 7 for more than a mile to downtown Pittsfield, stopping at the Intermodal Transportation Center on North Street, and later going to the former Pearl Street Day Center on Fenn Street, near City Hall.
In the afternoon, the homeless person might go with others to the Berkshire Athenaeum on Wendell Avenue, might be confronted by a staff member or patron, before making their way back to the transportation terminal in time to catch a bus back to Barton's Crossing, if they have money for the fare.
With each entry to the emergency winter overnight section of Barton's transitional shelter, Hunt said homeless people must go through a processing that might include a search or being turned away if they have been drinking or using drugs.
Then she describes how in frigid temperatures homeless people sometimes go to the Berkshire Medical Center emergency room, faking an illness or injury or an addiction issue requiring treatment several days; or they try to get picked up by police or find a porch, vacant structure or other space to huddle through the night.
Hunt also interviewed those who interact with the homeless population at various levels, such as social workers at shelters, nurses, doctors and security guards at Berkshire Medical Center, as well as police officers. In her field work, she said, she benefited from connections through her father, a probation officer at Juvenile Court, other close relatives who are police officers and an acquaintance who works at the BMC emergency room.
As the weeks passed, she said, "I got to experience just what they go through every day."
Yet, despite their homelessness, "it is not scary as most people would think," she adds. "There are great conversations; you experience their emotions, learn pretty much what is meaningful in their everyday lives."
Hunt said she interviewed about 20 homeless people and got to know about 10 well — also learning of many others through the stories told by those she talked with.
"They are all ages, all backgrounds, pretty much everything," Hunt said. "But they all ended up homeless."
She heard of different circumstances in each case, "but it was often from the deterioration of relationships that they became homeless. ... They just kind of lost the supports that otherwise kept them stable. I was able to recognize what everyone takes for granted every day."
The breakup of a relationship, the loss of a loved one or severed family ties were common threads, she said, often coupled with prescription drug or alcohol addiction issues.
"But it was interesting that when they did become homeless, they learned from it," she said, "and none of them took becoming homeless as a bad experience. They learned from it, learned morals that they would otherwise never have recognized, that they could use and benefit from for the rest of their lives."
In developing her thesis conclusions, "I finally realized that your sense of self-worth is related to relationships," she said. "You find your personhood through relationships and recognition.
"Nostalgic memories of relationships divert and act as comfort," she said, "but also bring back painful memories of what was lost." That was especially true around the holiday season, she said, as homeless people walked past the bright holiday decorations at Park Square and along North Street in the downtown.
"Nearly every homeless individual in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who confided in me never anticipated becoming homeless," Hunt wrote in her report. "Yet now, they are either couch surfing, sleeping in an unwelcoming shelter, or left alone to the streets. All the while, I heard heart-wrenching accounts of helplessness, vulnerability and unhappiness. I heard reflections of anguish, grief and loneliness. Through the countless different circumstances of becoming homeless, the desire for interdependency, support and stability pervaded the emotional narratives of these individuals."
For these reasons, Hunt said she came to view an ongoing stable and supportive environment that slowly brings a homeless person back into society as the best way to provide assistance.
She said the programs for homeless veterans at the Soldier On transitional housing facility on West Housatonic Street seemed to have those positive effects.
"Some of the most powerful interviews I had were at Soldier On," she said. "They are actually given stable shelter. Soldier On empowers them, gives them a sense of meaning. They live and do things every day. Everyone was so happy; they learned from it."
A key component, she said, seemed to be the peer mentoring of new residents at the facility by those who have been there longer. "It gives them purpose, becoming a mentor to others who recently became homeless," she said. "You could tell the dynamics were just so different compared to the homeless [services] in the rest of the county. I wish they had those same services in more applicable domains."
Hunt said she believes veterans make up about a third of the local homeless population.
She also learned that most homeless people in the county apparently stay in the area rather than travel with the change of seasons. "But no one likes winter," she said, which is when homeless people look to the emergency overnight beds made available during winter at the Barton's shelter, or seek couch-surfing arrangements with people they know or other indoor spaces.
In the warmer months many homeless people seem comfortable living outdoors, Hunt said, often in tents set up in city parks or wooded or secluded locations. "There are a select few people that want to remain homeless," she said, eschewing the pressures and also the restraints of society's expectations. "They just don't desire a two-story house," Hunt said.
Some homeless people "[live in] a lot of places, actually, and they are pretty proud of what they are able to do," she said of those who live outdoors and get by on minimal resources, sometimes fishing to supplement their diet.
Most appear to have little income and few resources, she said, and usually rely heavily on food stamps.
"They are not necessarily trying to gyp the system, which a lot of people would think," she said. Some simply enjoy the freedom their lifestyle allows, Hunt said, "which shouldn't be frowned upon."
Frowned upon they routinely are, however, she said, and often disparaged.
"I witnessed many incidents of degradation," she said, in which "members of the community are keeping them away from public spaces that otherwise, if you weren't homeless, you could access. It was definitely stigmatized, and you could definitely see that they were targeted."
Homeless people "don't have the support [of relationships], as it is," she said, "and the community isn't helping."
Addiction to prescription drugs or alcohol, which she found is typically "used to numb their pain," seems prevalent among the homeless, she said, and is another area where easier access to recovery services is essential to addressing the problem.
"They all warned me about it," she said of heroin, "even if they were not involved in drugs. Every single person just wanted to warn me: 'Stay away from the heroin.' It is so easy to access, I had no idea."
Her many hours spent among the homeless population also resulted in "some sticky situations," Hunt said, including an encounter with a mentally unstable man. "One person was just so upset," she said, "but I just let him speak it out and he stepped back. He later apologized."
People "shouldn't be quick to judge [such incidents] when they don't know what they've been through," she said. "But it is hard to understand and people would be terrified of him."
Hunt, the daughter of James and Cheryl Hunt, grew up in Pittsfield along with her two brothers (she is a triplet and the only one of the three who did not become an engineer), as well as two younger sisters.
She now works with city youth at the Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, which provides services for children, adolescents, adults and families who suffer from serious and persistent behavioral health disorders, according to its website.