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During pandemic, homeless making 'the best of it' at former St. Joe's school in Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — Homeless residents were less than enthusiastic about the move to the old St. Joseph Central High School.

They have to walk to use a laundromat, they said, and they have to request a staff escort to use the downstairs showers.

Still, "it's better than sleeping under a bridge," said one man, who identified himself by only his middle name, Demetrius.

ServiceNet kicked opened the temporary shelter Monday, with support from city leaders and other nonprofits, to address issues stemming from the global coronavirus pandemic. Officials and advocates had feared that overcrowding at city shelters could facilitate spread of the virus.

The new 24-hour operation also solves another growing problem — people who are homeless had nowhere to spend their days, given that local restaurants, libraries and hangouts are closed because of the virus.

The Catholic Diocese of Springfield still owns the former school on Maplewood Avenue, which shuttered in 2017. The diocese offered up the space for use during the public health crisis.

Those seeking shelter can sign in from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., said Erin Forbush, ServiceNet's director of operations. The space can be reached at 413-320-6550.

Clean blackboards line the walls behind Army green cots. Each former classroom has eight to 10 of them, spaced at least 6 feet apart.

Forbush said that in some rooms at ServiceNet's permanent shelter, Barton's Crossing, cots were so close together that people could reach out and touch each other.

About 30 people stayed for the inaugural overnight Monday.

"Some people found other places to go," Forbush said.

The weather was warm at the start of the week, but Forbush said March and April tend to be very busy months for the agency.

Staff and residents described an uncomfortable transition.

"I was very clear that this was new to all of us," Forbush said. "And we're all going to get a little irritated with each other at times. We just take it as it comes."

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To accommodate the new 24-hour cycle, Forbush said ServiceNet hired a handful of new people. Looking ahead, she said it also could be helpful to have staff on hand in case people need to be quarantined.

"I would be more than happy if all my planning doesn't get used," she said.

At the shelter Tuesday, one resident did triceps dips on a chair while others watched the news.

Anthony, who declined to give his last name, didn't have strong feelings about the new digs.

"It is what it is," he said.

He and two other men staying at the shelter said many, like them, are in recovery. Each day offers an opportunity to "stay out of trouble."

"I have three kids," Demetrius said. "I'm just trying to better myself."

Meantime, he said, the social services agencies they typically use for help are closed, and liquor stores — places they are trying to avoid — are open and close by. Demetrius said he has family that he could stay with, but their lifestyle is not conducive to his recovery.

"We have no other choice," he said.

The men said they prefer Barton's Crossing, where they have in-house laundry facilities and they can shower freely at any time.

But, it's a place to stay, Demetrius said.

His friend agreed.

"You just gotta make the best of it."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-464-2859.


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