PITTSFIELD — In a reversal, city leaders said Monday that they will make the old St. Joseph's Central High School available this week to people who are homeless.
Mayor Linda Tyer had originally said that the space would be used strictly for homeless people who need to undergo coronavirus-related isolations and quarantines, but the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency later decided to use a city hotel for medical isolation purposes.
The Catholic Diocese of Springfield granted the city access to the former Catholic high school on Maplewood Avenue earlier this month for general use during the crisis. How to use the space was a matter of some debate in previous weeks.
Based on decisions made Monday, local shelters will likely start setting up shop within the St. Joe's building this week to handle an increase in the number of homeless people since the COVID-19 outbreak. ServiceNet, which owns Barton's Crossing, will use funds from the Berkshire United Way to add staff to support the 24-hour shelter.
Fire Chief Tom Sammons said the city's early action readying St. Joe's paved the path for this move. MEMA is only providing this level of assistance to a handful of other communities, he said.
"We saw a need early," he said. "We jumped out in front of this so we were able to do this."
In addition to spearheading isolation efforts within a city hotel, Tyer said MEMA may also provide support to community agencies readying St. Joe's for use as a temporary homeless shelter.
"We are polishing out those details," said Jay Sacchetti, ServiceNet's vice president of shelter and housing.
The major hurdles now cleared, Sacchetti said smaller hurdles like how to handle laundry at the temporary facility and how to provide dinner service remain.
"There's a lot of small details," he said. "We need some help."
In short order, he said the agency will "very quickly" move between 55 and 65 people into the space, between the regular residents at Barton's Crossing and Soldier On.
"For us I think the sooner the better, but we don't wanna go unprepared either," Sacchetti said. "We want to make sure we have certain things in place."
Local leaders like state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier have been concerned about overcrowding at local shelters since the coronavirus crisis began. She credited city leaders for working with MEMA on it.
"I think it's well-located in that it's close to the health center, so I really do believe the St. Joe's solution is the way to go," she said.
Ward 7 City Councilor Tony Maffuccio remains frustrated at the pace of progress.
Time is of the essence, according to the city councilor
"Things should be happening sooner than they are now," he said.
To that point, Tyer said city leaders have been active on the issue.
"We had been thinking about this from the very beginning, and I appreciate his concern and his eagerness about this topic," she said, noting she wishes "to reassure him and others that we have been thinking about this a great deal."
Tyer, too, said she's happy it all came together.
"I'm pretty relieved that we have a working solution for the homeless," she said.
Her administration had identified early on that overcrowding at area shelters was a public health concern, she said.
"We can't have sick people together with people who are well. We have to separate them."
Cots for the space are like "ready to go" via the Department of Homeland Security, Sacchetti said. But he'll need to find people to help set them up, he said.
Thanks to the $25,000 grant that he expects from the Berkshire United Way, staffing won't be an issue, he said.
Before St. Joe's suddenly became available, Sacchetti said the agency had been working to set up a tent on their upper North Street property in order to expand its capacity. The state's building inspector denied that permit last week, he said.
"Then we moved beyond that idea to St. Joe's, which is better," he said.
Sacchetti said he is impressed by support from officials and by the resiliency of his staff.
"It's really been an extraordinary effort. In some ways it's an amazing thing to watch," he said. "Shelters are always dealing with crisis, so our staff tends to be less panicked with something like this."
Amanda Drane can be contacted at email@example.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-464-2859.