PITTSFIELD — Local shelters have fewer beds to offer this winter, even in the face of increasing demand, because of frozen state funds.
For the past four years, a $150,000 earmark helped shelters in Berkshire County increase their capacity during the winter months and meet spiking demand, but Gov. Charlie Baker froze all legislative earmarks in light of what his office calls legislative overspending.
"He's holding them all hostage in the name of balancing the budget," said Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, adding that "$150,000 is a pretty small amount of money to keep people warm in the winter."
"We have a number of legislative earmarks, and we really are only right now advocating for this one because, you know, it's cold outside."
Collaborating social service agents said over 200 homeless people came through the stalled winter shelter program annually, in addition to the year-round clientele.
A spokesperson for the administration's Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development said statewide spending on homelessness increased during this fiscal year.
"As part of the administration's work to balance the state budget, the total funding for the Homeless Individuals Assistance line item rose to $45.7 million this fiscal year," Samantha Kaufman said. "Due to the Legislature's decision to overspend on various other earmarks, the administration will continue to closely review programs and spending to ensure we end the year in balance."
Brad Gordon, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, said funding was similarly frozen last year, but members of the administration assured him early in the season that funding would come. Agencies collaborating on the winter shelter program — Barton's Crossing and Soldier On, in Pittsfield, Louison House in North Adams and Construct in Great Barrington, among them — patched together enough dollars to run the program over the winter and were reimbursed in May, when Baker released the earmarked moneys.
Collaborators are hesitant to do that again this year, Gordon said, given the state's volatile financial climate and their own tight budgets.
He said this is an important program for the state to support outright. Without it, he said, he fears that the city will see street homelessness and undesirable alternatives, like people getting themselves arrested so they'll have somewhere warm to go.
"This is one specific funding item in which you really put people's lives at risk, because it funds winter shelter capacity, which is key to getting people off the streets during the high-utilization months," he said.
Numbers spike on cold nights, advocates say, and staffers at Barton's Crossing in Pittsfield are forced to turn people away. The earmark in previous years allowed for additional staffing at the city shelter, which equated to 20 more beds and space for people to sit in the dining room if all beds were full. It also enabled Soldier On to set up an overflow room of 10-plus beds — a feat the organization executed this year with private donations rather than waiting on the stalled state funds.
To the north and south at Louison House and Construct, the earmark helped set up emergency shelter and provide transportation to beds in Pittsfield. The additional staffing that the funding allowed meant Barton's Crossing also could stay open longer during the colder weather.
"Without that money this year, we're not able to expand the Barton's capacity, because we don't have the staffing to provide safe shelter," said Jay Sacchetti, who oversees shelter and housing programs for ServiceNet, operator of Barton's Crossing. "Barton's is a big building, so without the earmark, we can't cover the building."
Sacchetti said those seeking services sometimes come with drugs or weapons, and so it's important for everyone's safety to check them upon entry and provide proper supervision.
He said the cold drives in a population that doesn't seek shelter year-round, offering an opportunity to provide services for those people and help reduce the county's homeless population.
"The winter shelter money also allows us to reach people we normally wouldn't reach," he said. "It has a year-round effect."
He said the collaborating agencies have been able to get 45 more people a year off the streets and into housing with the help of the wintertime earmark.
"We're treading water, but we are making an impact," he said.
Gordon said numbers at the shelters are usually lower Christmas week because of yuletide generosity but spike soon after.
"In the holidays in particular, people think about these issues, but it's a 12-month-a-year challenge," he said.
Reach Amanda Drane at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter or at 413-496-6296.