Kennedy visits Springside Park homeless

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PITTSFIELD — In the woods above Springside Park, Gregory Mathews Sr. is tending a camp fire at his summer home when U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III arrives, sleeves rolled up.

It's not quite 9 a.m. The sun cuts through the trees, and Mathews tells Kennedy he is a Christian trying to take care of his family. He explains why this encampment is now home — after the doors of help that closed, despite the knocking.

"We couldn't get a door open," Mathews said, standing next to a hanging oven mitt that says, "Our nest is the best."

After listening, Kennedy steps in for an elbow bump and puts his hand to his heart before heading back down to the park pavilion with Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and several city councilors.

Harrington had delivered breakfast for the roughly 50 people who call these woods home now for lack of shelter space, in part because of the pandemic.

The encampment was the first Berkshires stop on the congressman's Monday "Jobs and Justice" tour in Western Massachusetts. Next he went to Community Health Programs in Great Barrington, where he heard the travails of running a rural public health nonprofit in a high-poverty county struggling for funding on a good day — and now having to widen its safety net for residents amid a crumbling pandemic economy.

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Kennedy, 39, who represents the state's 4th Congressional District, is behind in one recent poll as he tries to unseat Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, 74, a federal lawmaker since 1976.

Markey campaigned in the Berkshires on Friday. One poll for the Sept. 1 primary also shows around 24 percent of voters uncertain.

Kennedy's campaign casts him as the young change agent, and Markey as a contributor to the "status quo."

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Kennedy's critics point to his own membership in a political dynasty, and that after seven years in office, he is hardly a fresh voice.

In the Berkshires, Kennedy cited his legislative commitment to mental health care and substance abuse treatment funding. He said jails shouldn't be the place where one goes for help.

"We pay an enormous amount for mental and behavioral health care," he said. "We just pay for it under the criminal justice system. We pay for this — we just don't pay for it right and we don't pay for it smart."

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At Community Health Programs, the nonprofit's CEO, Leah Spillotes, told Kennedy of unchanged Medicare reimbursement levels that have weakened the safety net for the rural poor. Other struggles include broadband deficiencies when telehealth became the norm overnight.

"COVID is shining a very bright light on the disparities," he said, speaking of all the inequities.

Kennedy is a co-sponsor of Medicare for All. He termed the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act "an act of malice."

He said Monday that securing political change requires listening and persistence.

"You lay down the answer that you think is right," he said. "You keep fighting and you keep showing up."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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