Our Opinion: Pittsfield needs proposed homeless shelter

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Every once in a while, an obvious short-term solution emerges to mitigate a difficult long-term problem.

In what's sometimes colloquially referred to as "the tent cities" of Springside Park, dozens of homeless people have made camp ("Wave of concerns blankets homeless in Pittsfield park," Eagle, Aug. 2).

Combating homelessness is a complex, multifaceted issue rife with confounding factors that have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. A stricken economy has created more cracks for people to fall through, and public health guidelines like distancing rules significantly limit the capacity of existing shelters.

In Pittsfield, a collaborative effort between First United Methodist Church and ServiceNet offers some near-term relief. Under the proposal, the mental health and human services agency — which runs several shelters in the region — would lease and manage a space provided by the Fenn Street house of worship to serve between 20 and 40 people.

Unfortunately, the plan has accrued some opposition. Going before the city's Community Development Board for the required hearing to obtain a special permit, the church found support among many in the community, as well as pushback regarding the location, mostly from nearby downtown businesses. The contentious hearing was continued until Aug. 18.

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"I'm not sure I've ever been involved in a decision as difficult as this one," Community Development Board member Elizabeth Herland said at the initial hearing.

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It's true that there is difficulty in the grander task of holistically addressing homelessness along with its causes and effects. What's not a difficult distinction, however, is that the city's homeless — and ultimately the city — are far better served by a shelter than they are by being forced to make camp in Springside.

"Panhandling is a detriment to downtown Pittsfield," a North Street business owner said during the hearing.

"There's a window during the day when these people are a problem. It seems to me this shelter should not be in the heart of our downtown," another added.

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Downtown business owners have an understandable sensitivity to the effects of sudden shakeups in the city's center. Nevertheless, it needs to be acknowledged that the problem is not "these people" but an extraordinary period of economic strife and uncertainty brought on by a protracted pandemic crisis. While we all feel the squeeze, it is predictably tightest for the most vulnerable, and the shelters that seek to help them.

It is specious at best to imply that Pittsfield is better off with the city's homeless making a go of it in the woods of Springside Park — incidentally only a few blocks from the heart of downtown. In a virus-stricken summer, public outdoor space like the park is a safe, accessible way for people to get out and shake off the cabin fever. Is it really preferable for the encamped to crowd these spaces in lieu of letting ServiceNet and First United Methodist give them a bed with a roof over their head?

What would truly be a detriment to the character of Pittsfield is holding what's good for business over basic concern for our most vulnerable neighbors who, in a time of such suffering and a public health crisis, don't even have access to clean running water.

As of now, the First United Methodist shelter proposal is the only one currently on the table. The plan's detractors, to at least acknowledge the issue at hand in good faith, might offer an alternative to the Fenn Street endeavor. Short of this, we urge the Community Development Board to approve a special permit for the shelter plan at its Aug. 18 meeting so that the groundwork on this vital project can begin.


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