PITTSFIELD — Zion Lutheran Church, a landmark along Pittsfield’s Common, could offer shelter of a new kind in coming years. The church is the proposed site of a housing resource center and units of permanent supportive housing.
Both will be funded in part by money from the city’s American Rescue Plan money, if parishioners continue to back the effort.
“People in the congregation understand that homelessness is a problem in our community and [they] understand that for us as Christians, it’s a problem that demands a compassionate response,” the Rev. Joel Bergeland said. “They also understand that one gift we have to offer right now is the gift of space.”
The project is among a slate of projects that will be funded through $8.6 million of the city’s federal coronavirus relief money. They range from emergency shelter space to a permanent affordable housing project.
The investments bring Pittsfield’s planned use of ARPA money to $30.6 million — about $10 million shy of what the city will receive from the federal program in the next year.
Mayor Linda Tyer announced in a ceremony Monday that $5 million in ARPA money has been set aside for the project at the Zion Lutheran Church and $1.5 million will be put toward developing 111 West Housatonic St. into 37 units of supportive housing.
A $750,000 allocation of ARPA money will go toward rehabilitating the White Terrace Apartments into 41 units of affordable housing.
The city has also put $500,000 into Pittsfield’s newly formed affordable housing trust and another $500,000 into a second round of the At Home In Pittsfield program.
The final award of the day was a $345,500 allocation to the emergency shelter project at the First United Methodist Church.
Tyer said forums, surveys and advisers put housing “as a top priority for the American Rescue Plan.”
She added that the projects are meant to serve “the city’s most vulnerable neighbors.”
A sheltering congregation
Bergeland said that the congregation hasn’t used the basement and second floor of the 1850s-era church since 2017. In that year the church underwent a renovation of its sanctuary space to create a gathering area.
That work ended the church’s exemption from federal accessibility laws and meant that any open areas needed to be accessible to a variety of mobility abilities. Unable to cover the cost of adding an elevator to the building, the congregation decided to essentially shutter its top and bottom floors.
In the last several years, the spaces have sat mostly empty — home to a collection of church archives, old sacrament vessels, Christmas decorations and occasionally host to local choirs as a practice space.
“The church got used to living on one floor together,” Bergeland said. “[We] started to ask questions ... so if we don’t use this space, who is it for then? Who is meant to share this space with us?”
In December, Bergeland and other representatives from the church connected with Berkshire Housing Services President and CEO Eileen Peltier.
The private, nonprofit organization pitched the group on the idea of a space that could support several tenants and a housing resource center.
Current negotiations between the congregation and Berkshire Housing Services would transform the former Sunday school class space on the second floor into eight single-occupancy units of about 350 square feet. Each unit would have a bathroom, kitchen and living space and share common space and laundry facilities.
The plans would also convert a 7,000-square-foot portion of the church’s basement space — once used as a banquet and auditorium space — into a kind of community “living room” model recently recommended by the mayor’s Homelessness Advisory Committee.
The space would have individual showers and bathroom facilities, mailboxes, a quiet lounge area, computer lab, phone charging station, office and consulting space. The church’s basement kitchen would be updated and repurposed to provide meal services as well.
The two spaces would be connected by an accessible elevator and would have their own entrances separate from the congregation’s sanctuary space.
There’s an obvious excitement from church leadership about the proposal, but it’s not a done deal yet.
Bergeland said the congregation was clearly supportive of the project when it came up last year but that some members remain divided over whether this is the right way forward for the church.
In February, the congregation took a vote to authorize the church to find an attorney to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with Berkshire Housing Services. In December, the congregation will gather and provide an up or down vote on the project.
“I think the shift that we rightfully have started to ask is ‘is this space right for our needs?’ but then also ‘is the space right for our neighbors’ needs and the needs of our neighborhood?’” Bergeland said.
If the Zion project goes through, the church will join nearby First United Methodist Church as a cornerstone in the city’s response to housing instability.
Peltier said construction on the Fenn Street Shelter, as the First United Methodist Church project is called, will begin soon and should be finished by November.
ServiceNet, which runs the city’s emergency shelter out of the former St. Joseph Central High School, will transition its services to the building once work is complete.
“We’re really hoping to be up and running by the time the snow flies,” Peltier said.
Jay Sachetti, senior vice president of shelter & housing, vocational and addiction services for ServiceNet, said that’s welcome news to his organization.
“We want to get back to a shelter where we can build a community and people are helping prepare meals — we can’t do that at St. Joe,” Sachetti said.
PITTSFIELD — As the number of homeless people taking up residence in Springside Park increases, only one proposal for a new shelter has been brought to the Community Development Board table, and it's meeting opposition.
When the Fenn Street Shelter is completed, it will provide 6,000 square feet of sleeping, meeting and common space for those in need of emergency shelter. The new shelter will have 45 overnight and emergency beds, showers and bathrooms, a commercial kitchen and dining area.
The long-discussed shelter project now totals $904,500 after facing similar accessibility hurdles as the Zion Lutheran Church and rising construction costs. The original project was quoted at $500,000.
Along with the $345,000 in ARPA money, the city is putting $200,000 in community development block grants toward the shelter.
The Legislature approved $200,000 of the state’s ARPA money for the project and another $150,000 was donated from community members.