PITTSFIELD — The St. Joseph’s Shelter in Pittsfield, housed in the city's defunct Catholic high school, is limping into its final winter at nearly full capacity with plenty of problems.
The roof leaks. Maintenance crews catch water in buckets on the second floor. People worry about mold. Sometimes the water doesn't run and sinks don't clear.
Staff of ServiceNet, the nonprofit that operates the shelter, have been waiting to move into the First United Methodist Church a few blocks south. But that's not ready. So the 1942 building at 414 North St. that used to be St. Joseph’s Catholic High School — a place showing its age — remains home.
It’s not the space operators at St. Joseph’s Shelter want to be in, but it must do. “This will be our last winter here,” Erin Forbush, director of operations for ServiceNet, said. “I’ve been saying that for a few years, but I’m hoping this is it.”
For the roughly 50 people who come through its doors daily for shelter, this is the city's answer for those without permanent housing. As winter nears, more and more homeless residents will rely on the shelter as it now operates, amid rising concern about how Pittsfield's leaders are managing housing concerns.
Staff at the shelter are awaiting a move to a space that will allow a capacity of about 45 residents on nearby Fenn Street. It is expected to be finished next spring.
Mayor Linda Tyer says the existing shelter is a vital resource in the community, but is eager to see it move to a more “comfortable” environment, where sleep and shower facilities will be improved. “I think it’s going be a much more homey environment and a much nicer place not just for the people at ServiceNet, but for the people living there,” Tyer said.
In this report, The Eagle takes readers inside the shelter, outlines its challenges and hears from people who choose to use the shelter — or to avoid it.
The building, as it stands now
Arranging the old parochial school into a place where people can spend time together has been no small task, Forbush said. What used to be first-floor classrooms now make up group living quarters, where up to eight residents stay on cots.
Because of the building’s size, it can be easy for shelter residents to spread out and have their own spaces. While Forbush and her team want people to have a space they can consider their own, they also seek to foster a sense of community.
That mostly happens in a common room, the school’s old gymnasium. Long tables are set throughout the space, with residents seated on opposite ends to prevent spread of COVID-19. Residents in the shelter wear masks indoors.
On most evenings, the space is alive with activity: there are dueling TVs in the shelter’s recreation area on football Sundays. Residents work on puzzles, compete in board games and use a table tennis setup on the old stage in the gym.
As Tyer puts it, there’s a “community within a community” at the shelter.
Cubbies line walls of the common area, where residents can keep food and personal items. Residents can bring about two bags worth of belongings with them, Forbush said.
Throughout the place, the building is showing its age.
The leaky roof has led to concerns about mold. Forbush said inspectors from the city did not find dangerous black mold in the building, dispelling a rumor that pockets of it existed.
“We really couldn’t use that second floor right now,” Forbush said. “The roof is probably shot.”
The shelter also has a problem keeping sinks, faucets and showers in working order. In some cases over the last few years, they’ve dealt with a shortage of hot water. In others, they’ve had no running water for brief periods.
Staff usually take on the task of repairing things around the building. Forbush said that in some cases, the fixes are too small to hire contractors, so she’ll enlist the help of her father, a handyman.
Recently, another problem has beset the shelter: bedbugs. Forbush said the shelter has arranged visits from pest control specialists every two weeks. Trying to eradicate bedbugs is tricky, though; they’re a moving target and have been found in different places in the building. Putting clothes or garments infested with bedbugs in a dryer helps to kill the pests.
People coming, people going
In a change from its policy, the shelter will stay open for residents throughout the day this winter, beginning on Nov. 14. As it stands now, residents are asked to leave St. Joe's at 8 a.m., keeping them in limbo until it reopens at 4 p.m.
Angela Aulisio, a regular shelter resident, said having to leave the shelter for most of the day at her age is a challenge. “It’s hard,” Aulisio said. “I’m 64 years old and I never thought I’d be doing this.”
Aulisio is one of a considerable group of older women staying at the shelter. Forbush said the number of older women at the shelter has increased over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some rooms at the shelter hold equipment like walkers and wheelchairs.
The cold adds another challenge for Aulisio. She has to double or triple up on her layers and carries a blanket with her when she leaves the shelter.
“There’s places you can go during the day, but dammit, it’s cold,” Aulisio said.
Aulisio spends her nights at the shelter, but keeps to herself mostly, she said. She’s been concerned about fights or disagreements between residents getting out of hand.
Aulisio also had concerns about thefts. When interviewed, she was worried about whether or not her AM/FM radio would still be where she left it in the shelter. She normally brings it with her when she leaves for the day.
“For what we have to live in, there’s stress,” Aulisio said. “Big time.”
Disagreements are practically guaranteed by having people living in tight quarters, Forbush said. Staff at the shelter try to prevent them from escalating.
“There’s a lot of personalities in a building that you have 50 people in, that you haven’t made the choice to invite into your home,” Forbush said.
Photos: A look inside ServiceNet's 'temporary' emergency shelter at St. Joe's High School, two years on
Residents are given a list of guidelines upon checking in and are expected to adhere to them. Forbush said violence is where the shelter draws the line, with a strict policy against it.
After some time, though, most residents at the shelter are welcomed back for lesser infractions. Issues like theft among residents require a different perspective, she said. People staying at the shelter are often in extreme need, and may reach for what’s closest to them. “There’s this misconception that we have this 20-page list of people who can’t use the shelter,” Forbush said.
Most problems that arise at the shelter – and on the street – are a result of a lack of communication, she said.
Until some shelters, the program does not turn away people who may be under the influence. People’s possessions are checked for drug paraphernalia at the door as they come in.
Forbush said she embraces what's known as a "trauma-informed" approach. It recognizes the effects that past traumatic events can have on residents, especially those with undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues.
“My job is to build them back up,” Forbush said. “I want to give people responsibility, ownership.”
Keeping their distance
Some people interviewed this week, like Nicholas Hinterberg, said they don’t feel comfortable in the shelter.
Hinterberg, 24, spends most of his days roaming the streets in Pittsfield, not entirely sure where to go. He’s thinking about leaving, though – not just the shelter, but the city.
“This is not a good town to be in if you’re on the street,” Hinterberg said. “They say they’re doing a lot to help, but they’re not.”
Hinterberg has been homeless for about four months. He said he’s asked staff at the shelter, where he has stayed, for help locating housing but hasn’t found anything.
He said he doesn’t feel safe at the shelter. The nights he stays at St. Joe's, he’s usually up “tossing and turning all night.” Some nights he ends up on the street because he feels he can’t stay in the shelter.
Other residents who have left the shelter express frustrations with it. Brandon Messer, a homeless resident in Pittsfield, said he’s felt wrongly accused of misconduct that got him removed from the shelter. “You get in a little argument and they treat it like it’s jail,” he said.
Messer said he has a learning disability and anger issues. Before he left the shelter, he flipped two tables. It bothers him that sinks and plumbing never seem to get fixed. ServiceNet and the city need to do more for the homeless, Messer said.
Hearing people’s experiences are critical, Forbush said. She said she tries to follow up on what she hears. “We want people to tell us what sucks,” Forbush said. “We want people to tell us what’s going on for them.”
The solution, however, can’t come solely from the shelter. Forbush said addressing homelessness in the city requires effort from everybody in the community. The one thing we can’t afford to do, she said, is ignore it.
“Don’t look away,” Forbush said. “Our residents often feel invisible. Stop and say hello to someone, ask them how they’re doing – that goes a long way.”