Fighting homelessness in Berkshires remains year-round quest
PITTSFIELD — As snow approached Thursday, those who manage the Barton's Crossing shelter prepared for a busy night of checking in guests and keeping peace in the building's mazelike corridors.
The day before, a week into ramped-up winter operations here on a busy road north of downtown, fewer than a dozen people came in on foot or off the bus to take emergency shelter, bunking on cots lined up in two rooms, one for women, one for men.
"Tonight we'll fill 20," Jay Sacchetti of ServiceNet, the shelter's operator, said Thursday.
From November through April, his agency channels $150,000 in state aid to shelters in Berkshire County that offer a last resort for people with nowhere else to go.
But this problem doesn't vanish come May.
Storms worse than bad weather — chiefly, poverty and substance abuse — put thousands of county residents at risk of losing their homes all year round.
Though winter shelter programs buzz with activity this time of year, by the numbers, much of the heavy lifting on homelessness prevention takes place elsewhere.
For instance, it happens in the Fenn Street offices of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, which reports that in the past fiscal year, it helped 2,229 households sliding toward homelessness.
It happens in Western Massachusetts Housing Court and in the county's three district courts, where advocates fight to help tenants not tumble into a housing crisis through the 700 cases of eviction that reached such venues last year.
It happens one-on-one between counselors and people beset by a kaleidoscope of individual problems that put housing at risk: job loss, divorce, late mortgage payments, foreclosure petitions, substance abuse — particularly runaway opioid use — and mental health struggles.
The first 10 months of this year saw the filing of 175 foreclosure petitions.
"For me, it's a 12-month-a-year proposition," said Brad Gordon, the regional housing authority's executive director.
"You can easily go from being a homeowner to being homeless," Gordon said. "The face of homelessness has always been different in Berkshire County."
One day last January, a tally conducted across the region found 181 homeless people in Berkshire County, including those taking part in emergency and transitional housing programs.
That number is less than one-tenth of the volume of cases handled by Gordon's program in the year that ended June 30. And that doesn't count caseloads at Louison House in North Adams or Construct Inc. in Great Barrington, both of which help people with dire housing problems.
For thousands in the region, including many children, the comfort of home lies at risk for simple economic reasons.
Consider: The county's per capital income is 16 percent below the state average and median household income is 23 percent below that average. There are 10 percent more children in the county younger than 18 living under the poverty line, compared with the Massachusetts average.
In Pittsfield, 16.7 percent of all households try to make ends meet below the poverty line — double the state norm; in North Adams, that figure is 18.9 percent.
"When you look at income statistics, you really kind of wonder how they can make it," said Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
One additional pressure in Berkshire County is rising rents. Gordon, the housing authority's executive director, said it takes 70 hours of work for those making minimum wage to come up with rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
Breaking back in
Even though the Barton's Crossing shelter in Pittsfield expands by 20 beds for winter, its staff works through the year to help people in transitional housing programs turn a corner.
Cheryl Bassett, the program's new site manager, said that 80 percent of the shelter's guests move on to what they hope will be permanent housing.
Since taking charge in October, Bassett said, she is shaping new goals for the program, one of which is to foster a "therapeutic" environment able to help nudge people to confront their challenges.
"It's a hard system to break if you don't know any other way," said Bassett, who grew up poor in Florida. While under her roof, Bassett wants guests to shower, rest, eat well (she's a culinary school graduate) and focus on making plans to find stable housing.
Longer-term guests have used Barton's Crossing to save up, while working jobs in the community, to apply to upfront rent payments — and otherwise getting their financial lives in order.
And while together, guests often help one another.
"There's an amazing resiliency and compassion within this community," Bassett said. "People will give half of the last thing they have. You see more of people doing the right thing here."
Jon Leab, a case manager at Barton's Crossing, is part of the team that provides 24-hour coverage at the shelter. Like others, he helps advise guests on practical steps they can take to change their circumstances.
"You can tell who's motivated. We don't discriminate," Leab said.
Last year, Barton's Crossing saw 137 people come through for winter shelter, in a season that started late due to delays in state funding. It expects to serve 160 different people in the next five months.
While no one is turned away from the winter shelter, there is a waiting list to gain entry into the home's transitional housing program.
Ahmed Ennin, a relief counselor and native of Ghana who recently moved from Missouri, said he tries to encourage guests to reach for another chance at making things work financially.
"It is better to be paid a dollar than to be paid nothing," said Ennin, a veteran of restaurant jobs and work at a meatpacking plant. "The little drops of water can make a mighty ocean. Let it keep dripping. You always have to counsel them that they can do it. There's no harm in trying."
As shelter staff work to get people back into regular housing, that is job No. 1 for agencies around the region, including ServiceNet.
Sacchetti, an executive with the agency who lives in Pittsfield, said continuing efforts to divert people from homelessness are essential.
He noted the fact that, nationally, one-third of homeless youths ages 18 to 24 were formerly in foster care.
"There are some stark numbers," Sacchetti said. "I don't think we'll see a decrease in the number of people seeking shelter this winter."
Strategies to prevent homelessness dominated discussion at a regional gathering Friday afternoon at Greenfield Community College, in a forum convened by the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.
The two-hour briefing was first designed to bring newly elected state lawmakers up to speed on the problem of homelessness — and to enlist their help in securing new funding.
While the winter shelter programs received a 5 percent increase in state funding this year, the money isn't enough to provide needed programs, shelter officials say.
And what is available isn't distributed fairly across the state, said Pamela Schwartz, the network's director.
The four western counties are home to 13 percent of homeless individuals in the state, Schwartz said, but the area gets 7 percent of available funding.
"There's an equity issue," she said.
The network offered the audience in a Greenfield Community College auditorium a top-to-bottom review of what can be done to make headway against homelessness.
Geraldine McCafferty, Springfield's director of housing, highlighted successes in the network's nine years of work. She said that 95 percent of those living outdoors in Hampden County who engage with her department find stable housing.
Compared with 2012, the outlook is better today for many people, based on data McCafferty presented on a large screen.
"They've changed because we've worked really hard on the system," she said.
Thomas Bernard, the mayor of North Adams, said he came away from Friday's conference eager to continue collaborating with others in the county.
"Any person in need is one person too many," Bernard said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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