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Committee recommends more supports, spaces as Pittsfield Public Schools predicts record number of homeless students

Prayer might be answered after temporary Pittsfield homeless shelter closes (copy) (copy)

The Homelessness Advisory Committee is recommending that Pittsfield increase the availability of centralized support services like those proposed at the planned homeless shelter in the First United Methodist Church.

PITTSFIELD — The number of homeless students is on the rise, and a city advisory group is calling for action to make it easier for struggling families and individuals to find long-term support.

The Homelessness Advisory Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to urge the city to take a series of steps to address the problem after hearing a troubling report from city school officials about the number of homeless students it is serving.

“Last year was a high year for us for homelessness,” said Henry Duval, the district’s homelessness coordinator and interim deputy superintendent. “It looks like this year is going to be even higher.”

The report by Duval was the last in a series of presentations the committee has fielded in its mission to find ways to help address homelessness in the city.

Its findings? A severe deficit of affordable housing, shortage of support services and lack of understanding within the community have exacerbated the number of people who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability in Pittsfield.

The committee intends to send a letter to Mayor Linda Tyer recommending that the city map out available services for homeless people; build centrally located public restrooms and lockers; and seek out traditional and nontraditional support providers and therapists who can work in the city’s English-speaking and bilingual communities.

In his presentation to the committee, Duval said that, over the course of the 2020-21 school year, the district had 49 students who either were living in a shelter, a motel, a car, on their own or “doubled up” and living temporarily with other family or friends. Those students spent an average of nine months living in conditions the state qualifies as homeless, according to district data.

In the current school year, 27 students have been identified as homeless, 21 of whom are living in a shelter.

“We’re only in September,” Duval told the committee. “Last year, we reached the peak in December and January. ... I would expect, as the winter comes, that number is going to go up.”

Under federal law, schools are required to offer enrollment to homeless students who start the year in the district and then move elsewhere as well as students who are homeless and move in to the district after the start of the year.

Last year, the majority of the students the district had identified as homeless were Pittsfield residents. Only 14 students were placed in Pittsfield from other communities. This year, 20 of the 27 homeless students were placed in Pittsfield from other communities.

Among its recommendations, the committee will urge the city to adopt a “living room” model similar to the one at the Behavioral Health Network in Springfield to specifically address student homelessness.

The model operates by connecting people experiencing homelessness with peer mentors — people who have “been down a similar path and have an intimate understanding of what the struggle is like,” according to the program’s website. The space also hosts support staff with training in counseling, addiction services, domestic violence support and crisis services.

Committee member Erin Forbush told Duval that she thought the district data, while valuable, was an undercount of the actual number of homeless students.

“I actually work with the shelter,” said Forbush, who is director of operations at ServiceNet, the city’s homeless services provider. “I know that there’s more families in the public school system here in Pittsfield. I think there’s some concern about people identifying themselves.”

Duval said the district is meeting its federally mandated duty to transport homeless students to and from school, provides free breakfast and lunch for every student, and often uses informal fundraisers to try and support families until they can be connected to service providers. But, he added that the district supports only go so far.

“We have limited resources,” Duval said. “We do have some ways that we can help a family out, but we wouldn’t have anything that could sustain them for any length of time.”

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413- 496-6149.

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