Our Opinion: Key compromise forwards Pittsfield shelter plan

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As Pittsfield grapples with the rising issue of homelessness, compromise wins the day for a critical proposal.

While a plan for a homeless shelter in a downtown church attracted some opposition from surrounding businesses, proponents and opponents have come together on a proposal that will allow First United Methodist Church and ServiceNet to move forward on the Fenn Street shelter site in a timely manner.

The agreement was welcomed by the city's Community Development Board, which on Wednesday gave First United the requisite special permit for the shelter plan. The board had twice continued a hearing on the matter after heated debate arose each time.

The compromise is a simple one: The two-year permit is conditional on continuing the search for an alternative location over the next 18 months. First United and ServiceNet can get started on the Fenn Street shelter, while ServiceNet has agreed to work with advocates for a group of downtown developers in an attempt to find a more viable permanent shelter site. Crucially, those who initially balked at siting the shelter downtown have in good faith agreed to take on a key role in finding another location.

"We're asking you to give us that job," said attorney Jesse Cook-Dubin. The former president of Downtown Pittsfield Inc., who has been communicating on behalf of downtown businesses and property owners, added "We're satisfied on a temporary basis" with the Fenn Street shelter plan.

The coronavirus crisis and resultant public health guidelines have worsened crowding issues at homeless shelters, and in Pittsfield this has resulted in dozens of people experiencing homelessness camping out in Springside Park. Allowing the park to remain a de facto shelter without a proactive plan to address the problem is unsustainable, particularly regarding the safety of these already at-risk people when temperatures begin to drop.

Pushback initially threatened to upend the Fenn Street shelter plan, which promised up to 40 beds available come winter. The proposal has been preserved, however, through this good-faith agreement for which both parties deserve praise: ServiceNet for tirelessly seeking new avenues to help our most vulnerable neighbors; and the consortium of downtown interests for putting aside initial objections to a quick solution, and offering to help find a long-term one.

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