PITTSFIELD — Homelessness, housing and panhandling in the city have been thrust into the spotlight by a recent special forum that came after a city councilor raised questions on code enforcement in relation to homeless camps in the city.
Brian Andrews, a city resident, recently wrote a very insightful and compassionate op-ed that effectively illustrates why code enforcement and the use of law enforcement to move homeless camps are not effective long-term solutions. After all, doing so merely pushes homeless people to other properties and does nothing to change their circumstances of being homeless.
Indeed, many of the complaints brought up during this communitywide conversation have been centered around the nuisance homeless people cause, and while the conversation as a whole has brushed on some of the key causes of homelessness, it has mostly highlighted the perspectives of those that feel inconvenienced by homeless people. The fact that so much time during Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer’s forum on homelessness centered around panhandling exemplifies that, which Brad Gordon, the executive director of the Berkshire Regional Housing Authority, noted came from a fundamental misunderstanding of people experiencing homelessness.
Mayor Linda Tyer says officials hear residents' complaints about pandhandling in Pittsfield. But there's little they can do
Calls have been growing for some kind of response to people begging near busy intersections and grocery stores in Pittsfield. But Mayor Linda Tyer says there's little the city can do, unless the behavior becomes aggressive.
“The fact that we’re integrating this issue into our conversation on homelessness is interesting to me, because what it tells me is that we, as a public or as a community, sometimes conflate those two issues,” he said. “I see it as at best tangentially related.”
The framing of homeless people as a community nuisance is problematic and ineffective not only because it does not attempt to address any of the underlying causes of homelessness, but it often lacks empathy or respect for homeless people.
“Some are more worried about property values than how they could help those human beings that have no choice but live in a tent,” Andrews concluded in his column, later adding: “Either you care about people, regardless of their circumstances, or you don’t.”
It’s important to note that this issue of framing arose when Pittsfield City Councilor Charles Kronick brought attention to the issue more than a month ago, and it can be reframed. Kronick initially pushed for a public forum on the subject, but introduced it in terms of “your turn to show the council how the camps hurt your homes and businesses” and code enforcement, not one of humanitarian aid.
This angle has clearly caught on, as is evident by the aforementioned time focused on panhandling in the mayor’s forum and rhetoric found in letters to the editor, social media and overall public discourse on the subject.
In order for this communitywide conversation to create notable change, though, it needs to be refocused on the root causes of homelessness and the needs of the county’s homeless population. It also needs to ascertain actionable steps city government can take to better serve not only its homeless residents but its population as a whole by focusing on preventative measures to homelessness. This might include supporting more affordable housing, bolstering local employers and encouraging them to hire locally, investing in community health care and other resources.
It can also benefit from getting more people who either have experienced homelessness or are experiencing homelessness in the county involved by having their stories heard and seeing what common barriers to both housing and employment they’ve faced. If the conversation is reframed to focus on their stories and shared experiences, it stands a much better chance of getting a full diagnosis of the issue of homelessness in Berkshire County, which makes obtainable solutions more visible.
Most importantly, this issue requires empathy — a desire to understand it in its entirety and a willingness to help our homeless neighbors.
The “golden rule,” a pretty good guiding principle for life I was taught in elementary school, comes to mind: Treat others the way you want to be treated. Or, as it pertains to this conversation: Talk about others the way you would like to be talked about.
Imagine if you were homeless and trying your best to get back on your feet: How would you feel if the dominant notion in public discourse was how much of a nuisance you are?
At the very least, we owe our homeless neighbors basic human dignity and respect.