PITTSFIELD — Brandon Messer woke up in front of the Wright Building on North Street the other morning. He got up from a piece of foam insulation.
Walls jutting out around this and other North Street businesses block the wind, forming cubbies where people living on the street wrap themselves in sleeping bags or blankets.
Messer bundles up as much as he can, but most nights he needs a little extra help keeping warm. He tells me he finds it in cans of Icehouse Beer.
“I gotta get through these cold nights – and they get cold,” Messer said.
In the morning, he marches up North Street toward the buildings that once housed the White Terrace Apartments. There, he finds friends and, together, they spend their day, intentionally out of sight of other people downtown.
“They don’t bother us up here,” said John Skubel, another homeless resident.
Homeless people in Pittsfield bed down where they can. If they can’t find a place to crash with a friend or relative, they might find themselves in front of the former Jim’s House of Shoes or the Wright Building. Some find an abandoned building to sleep in; others will sleep on staircases or risk stretching out in the entrances to downtown businesses.
Don’t get there too early, or you might get asked to leave. Don’t get there too late, or you might need to find a new spot. Messer and others leave their blankets and sleeping bags in place, hoping they’ll be there when they return.
No two stories are the same on the streets of Pittsfield: a pair of star-crossed lovers who spend their days in the Berkshire Athenaeum sleep outside a few blocks up the street from the circle that hangs out at White Terrace. A hop-and-a-skip away from downtown, another group calls Springside Park home.
They wish there were more places for them to stay. They wish there were more services for people like them.
For now, they have each other.
‘We’ve got our own circle’
Skubel, also known as “Scoob,” is like a second mayor for those living on the street. Everyone knows him, and he knows everyone. He takes it upon himself to watch out for folks.
“We’ve got our own circle here,” Skubel said.
Skubel carries Narcan, ready to use it on someone to reverse the effects of an overdose. He hasn’t had to yet, but thanks to a class he took while in jail, he knows how to administer it. He’s ready to help anyone who ventures up that way if they need it.
While visiting behind White Terrace, Skubel shows us a nearby alleyway that shows why that precaution is necessary. The alley is strewn with garbage, ruined clothes, drug paraphernalia and human waste.
An archway in the building provides overhead shelter. People sleep back there almost every night, Skubel said.
Skubel said homeless people in Pittsfield make do as they can. Most businesses on North Street won't let them use bathrooms, he said. Keeping clean is hard. Trying to get personal hygiene supplies can be a struggle. He gathers what he can, including wipes pulled from dispensers at the Mobil station up the street.
I met Shaquanna Turnage, one of the other folks in the circle, at White Terrace. She said life on the street hasn’t been easy for her.
Turnage has a mental condition that makes it difficult to be around people, so staying in a shelter isn’t an option. She’s been picked up by the cops a few times for “sleeping where she isn’t supposed to.”
“I’m going to sleep wherever I can sleep,” she said.
Turnage wants to get sober. Things have been hard since her mom died. She’s dealing with family issues. She’s turned to alcohol to dull some of that pain.
“The day my mom died, my life was over,” Turnage said.
But she’s got ambitions to quit drinking. She’s hopeful she can get housing and get back off the streets for a bit, and from there, start to rebuild her life and get things she needs.
“I want my own,” Turnage said.
Messer has been homeless for about three months, though he was recently kicked out of St. Joe’s Shelter after a disagreement with staff. He said he was wrongfully accused of getting into arguments with other residents at the shelter and defacing a bathroom sink.
He wishes staff there had been more patient with him. Messer has a learning disability and said he’s had trouble applying for services.
“I have trouble doing things on my own,” Messer said.
Trying to find peace on the streets isn’t easy, which is why they head up to White Terrace. It’s not uncommon to hear “get a job” or “get lost” from passersby on North Street. Messer said someone recently walked up to him on the street and remarked to the people walking with him that “obviously he did too many drugs.”
“Then you got people picking on you, too,” Messer said. “I hate that.”
Skubel had his own problems with St. Joe’s Shelter, but walked away on his own. He was concerned about the condition of the building. Top of mind for Skubel was water damage in the building potentially leading to mold.
“Pretty sad I gotta sleep in a truck instead of a shelter,” Skubel said. He spends his nights in an unused truck nearby, with permission of the owner.
The folks at White Terrace keep busy waiting for things to change for the better. Skubel keeps his friend Angela Aulisio in a good supply of coloring and art supplies so she can pass the time. They swap stories, smoke cigarettes and break bread as they come by it.
All the while, they keep an eye out for each other.
“We take care of each other out here,” said Nicholas Hinterberg, a resident at St. Joe’s Shelter who knows Skubel well.
Dreaming of spring in Springside Park
Northeast of downtown, Springside Park stretches across 235 acres. Use of this park by homeless people, as well as the nearby First Street Common and Clapp Park off West Housatonic Street, has been a hotly debated topic in Pittsfield.
When we arrived to visit with people living there, David Rossi and Paul Granger had their work cut out for them. As the first frosts set in for 2022, they were busy insulating the structure they’ve built in Springside Park, ahead of bad weather.
This is their home: a solid foundation that Rossi laid himself, a solar panel with working outlets and a cozy enough place to shack up for the night. It’s a solid structure, but also one that they could haul off at a moment’s notice if needed.
“This whole place is tied together,” Rossi said. “You could pack it up, break it down and carry it off right now.”
Rossi and Granger have been living in the park for nearly three years. They try to keep the park clean, and pick up after others living in the park if there are issues with sanitation and drug use.
“I’m not saying I’m a custodian or anything like that, but I respect the park,” Rossi said.
Recently, that included helping put out a fire that engulfed a nearby encampment Oct. 30. When the flames broke out, Rossi tried to clear dry brush and douse the fire with dirt using a small machete.
Rossi studied chemistry at Boston University. Granger worked at restaurants in New Jersey before ending up in western Massachusetts; he now does masonry jobs when he can find them. They met at the shelter at Barton's Crossing, and have lived on their own since.
They’ve tried to make a home of it here at Springside, salvaging pots and pans from the side of the road. They even have a vintage sausage grinder.
They’re wary of being asked to leave, and have seen other homeless people come and go frequently. They’re also contending with the elements.
On top of human concerns, they deal with wildlife, fending off raccoons. On occasion, they’ve had to contend with black bears, when their homemade Pine-Sol deterrents failed them.
Rossi recalls an encounter not far away where they came face to face with a black bear mother and her cub.
Whatever comes next, they’ll have to be ready for anything.
“We have to adapt,” Granger said. “Otherwise, we’re pooched.”
A love story at the Athenaeum
Star Richardson and Arron Arnspiger spend most of their afternoons at the Berkshire Athenaeum. The library has become a gathering place for homeless people in the city, where some hang out to the side of the building’s entrance on Wendell Avenue, and others in pockets of the library where they can rest a bit during the day.
Arnspiger charges his phone here, their main source of entertainment besides the drama the streets offer. They use the library’s wi-fi to watch movies. Recently, they went through all the "Harry Potter" movies in honor of the late Robbie Coltrane, who portrayed the character Hagrid.
They get inventive to keep the phone charged. They found an outlet by the fountain in Park Square a few blocks away. When the city puts up holiday decorations along North Street, they can usually plug into them, too.
The couple just celebrated their one-year anniversary. They met through a mutual friend and immediately took a liking to each other, as they tell it.
When Arnspiger found out Richardson was homeless, he joined her on the street, saying he didn’t want her to be alone. Arnspiger had been living with an acquaintance nearby. Since then, they’ve been together and doing what they can to get by.
Richardson is one year sober from heroin, with Arnspiger’s help. He helped her get there after her ex-partner entered rehab.
“I hate to put it like this, but he was kind of the best rebound ever,” Richardson said of Arnspiger with a laugh.
Humor keeps them together. As Richardson puts it, things suck right now. But they have each other. “You gotta look at the bright side,” Richardson said. “If you just look at the negative in life, you’ll never get somewhere.”
The library offers a reprieve for the couple during the day, but they can't spend the night there. Their usual landing spot is in front of the former Jim’s House of Shoes on North Street, a storefront that offers a bit of protection from the wind at night.
But nights on the street can take their toll. Richardson, who is four months pregnant, said her hips have been getting sore and she finds it harder to walk.
“Sleeping on the concrete isn’t really comfortable when you’re pregnant,” Richardson said.
The couple’s options to find places to stay are nearly exhausted. Bunking with relatives never seems to last too long, and staying in a shelter isn’t an option, she said. For one, Richardson suffers from severe anxiety that she believes would flare up in that group setting. On top of that, she can’t imagine spending the night apart from Arnspiger.
At St. Joe’s Shelter in Pittsfield, men and women are separated for the night in accordance with ServiceNet’s contract with the state.
“They’re going to separate me from him,” Richardson said. “He’s all I’ve had for the better part of a year.”
Each day, Richardson and Arnspiger set out to find food, especially now that Richardson is eating for two. It’s not easy; they have to scrounge to get money together to buy a meal here and there.
They’re able to buy some food using her WIC card each week. It’s a fairly standard grocery list: 11 half-gallons of milk, $43 worth of fruits and vegetables, Carnation milk for nutrients, cheese, yogurt, peanut butter and bread. Making that last, however, can be difficult.
Refrigeration is an issue, Arnspiger said, but cold weather helps them keep the food from spoiling.
The couple will try to find an abandoned building when bitter cold sets in. Richardson’s baby is due in March, but she’s been told she won’t be eligible for more help from the state until December, she said.
“As long as it stands upright and blocks the wind, we’re good,” Richardson said of shelter.
When they find the time to rest, they settle down and tell stories. I first spoke with Arnspiger and Richardson a few months back and listened to the two of them make each other laugh. When we visited again in October, I heard yarns and fables about their childhood.
Operators of St. Joe's Shelter hope this winter will be their last in a former high school, as the building's maintenance needs continue to grow. A new space at the First United Methodist Church will change that, but not for many months.
Richardson used to play the violin as a kid. Her white whale song was “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” by the Charlie Daniels Band. She still talks about the dimension a good violin part can add to a song. “It puts so much character behind it,” Richardson said.
Arnspiger spent his childhood taking things apart and putting them back together again – including, once, the family refrigerator. “It had an awful squeal in it before,” Arnspiger said. “Like there was a dying duck in the refrigerator.”
When Arnspiger’s mother returned from grocery shopping that afternoon, before the refrigerator was reassembled, she gave him 10 minutes to get it back together. “It took a little longer than 10 minutes,” Arnspiger said, smiling. “But it wasn’t much longer.”
He’s always had a mind for the technical. Arnspiger works at times with an employer in IT, but hasn’t been able to work steadily this fall.
No matter where they end up next, they’re going together, she said. “It’s really just us and the family that we’ve started,” Richardson said.