PITTSFIELD — After weeks of advocacy and negotiations with downtown property owners, the Community Development Board on Wednesday unanimously approved a special permit allowing plans for a homeless shelter at First United Methodist Church to move forward.
But, in approving the permit, members agreed that a search for an alternative shelter location should continue. A condition of the special permit requires ServiceNet, the agency that provides services for the homeless, to keep working with advocates for a group of downtown developers to try to find a different and viable shelter location over the next 18 months.
The shelter's special permit will be valid for two years but would be renewed automatically, with no end date, if the quest for an alternative location fails after a year and a half, according to the condition that attorney Jesse Cook-Dubin discussed at the meeting.
Approval comes years after ServiceNet began searching for a new location to move its Barton's Crossing shelter, which currently is at 1307 North St. Public attention on that search intensified after July, when the agency closed its temporary shelter, which was opened in the spring at the former St. Joseph's Central High School.
Jay Sacchetti, ServiceNet 's senior vice president of sheltering, housing, vocational and addiction services, said he was working toward opening the church site in the fall. Barton's Crossing, which is cut to half its 20-bed capacity because of the coronavirus pandemic, will remain in operation after the new site opens.
Pending routine building inspections,up to 40 beds will be available in the winter at the church, which also offers weekly community meals, and 20 beds in warmer months. But, that capacity also will be reduced temporarily, in order to promote social distancing until the pandemic lifts, according to Brad Gordon, the executive director and staff attorney for the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority.
The Community Development Board, by approving the shelter, has gone on record affirming that the downtown is meant for everyone, Sacchetti said.
"Not just the movers and the shakers and the economic engines of the community, but the volunteers and community leaders who assist the marginalized members of our community to rise above the impoverished conditions to improve themselves and our community," he said.
Cook-Dubin, the former president of Downtown Pittsfield Inc., has been communicating on behalf of some downtown businesses and property owners during the permitting process. He said the hunt for a different location that meets ServiceNet's criteria is complicated but has progressed.
"We're satisfied on a temporary basis" with the conditions for approving the shelter at the church, he said, but "we'd still be concerned about this being located there on a permanent basis."
Investors willing to purchase an alternative property have stepped up, he said, but any purchase also would need public funding to work.
"We're asking you to give us that job," Cook-Dubin said of the task of identifying another shelter location.
Members of the Community Development Board thanked the various constituencies that were involved in hammering out an agreement of the special permit conditions over the past few weeks, conditions that made member Elizabeth "Libby" Herland feel comfortable enough to approve the shelter application.
She still has concerns about managing gatherings outside the church, she said, and supported "the shelter group that has been formed through, I think, Downtown Pittsfield Inc.," and is trying to find another site. Such a site surely would be "accessible to downtown," she said, so that those staying at the shelter could get to various social services agencies located there.
Board member Floriana Fitzgerald also said the search for another site should press on, as she is not convinced that the church is an ideal location.
"I'm not 100 percent positive that being right in that location, where it's such a tight place, is the best, but for now I think it serves its purpose," she said.
Public comment at the past two shelter hearings saw some residents urge the board to approve the site, and Wednesday's meeting was no different.
Meg Bossong said she was strongly in support of the Fenn Street shelter, and illustrated wealth inequality with scenes from her neighborhood near downtown. She noted that her house is underneath a flight path used by planes bound for Pittsfield Municipal Airport.
"About three times a day there's a $65 million Gulfstream jet that flies over my yard to land in the airport," she said, adding that someone else purchased a $1.65 million second home around the corner from her on South Street.
"The community is for all of us who live here. We do have a problem with homelessness and housing insecurity in our community, but that problem is a policy choice and a funding choice that is coming home to roost now," Bossong said. "We don't solve that problem by refusing to house our neighbors, we don't solve it by trying to find a different site that is out of sight."
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon, who chairs the Public Health and Safety subcommittee of the City Council that last week held a wide-ranging discussion about homelessness, stressed the importance of establishing a shelter close to services that people need.
"We have to think about these underlying issues, and how do we break that cycle that leads to homelessness," she said. "Those services that are offered downtown help to do that."
Amanda Burke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.