Pittsfield homeless shelter plan has no back-up if proposal fails

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PITTSFIELD — With a vote expected soon on a controversial proposal to expand the city's shelter capacity with beds at First United Methodist Church, a ServiceNet vice president revealed that no backup sites have been secured should the proposal fail.

"I don't have a Plan B. My hope is that there would be a facility that would be available, and at this point there isn't one, so we'll keep looking for one," Jay Sacchetti, the agency's vice president for shelter housing, vocational, and addiction services told the Public Health and Safety committee of the City Council last week, when members discussed issues related to housing insecurity.

After eight years searching for a new facility, ServiceNet is in the process of trying to permit a new shelter at First United Methodist Church, which would eventually become the shelter's permanent home.

Amid the pandemic, both Barton's Crossing and the First United Methodist Church, if that proposal is approved, would stay open for the time being.

While Barton's Crossing historically has offered about 20 shelter beds in the warmer months, Sacchetti said ServiceNet can only offer between 10 to 12 beds there currently. Barton's Crossing and Soldier On have historically expanded their winter shelter capacity to 40 beds across the facilities on November 1, but Mayor Linda Tyer said that won't be possible this year.

"The Covid requirements for social distancing have made that impossible for them to do," she said. 'We're going to need to find a solution for winter sheltering."

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The Community Development Board is set to reopen the public hearing on the proposal on Wednesday, after twice continuing the hearing without taking a vote on the special permit request.

The proposed church facility is designed to provide shelter for 40 people during the cold weather months, but would operate at reduced capacity during the pandemic, meaning additional shelter space may be needed, noted Brad Gordon, executive director of Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, in an email Friday.

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"However, with the pandemic and the related social distancing mandates which are needed to ensure public health, the capacity at the proposed FUMC site will be temporarily more limited as will the capacity at the current Barton's site, and therefore during the pandemic with social distancing remaining paramount, there may be a need for more shelter bed space to ensure that there is at least the capacity to meet the need that the community has seen over the last few years during the high demand months," Gordon wrote.

Sacchetti had hoped the former Saint Joseph High School, the site of the emergency shelter that opened near the height of the pandemic and whose closure touched off a wave of concern for the homeless, would be available to use again. But Tyer said the Springfield Diocese, which owns the building, has not responded to the city's communication.

Sacchetti didn't rule out the Second Street Jail, provided that a sprinkler system was installed first, but said "they didn't seem real interested in it last year."

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The shelter at Barton's Crossing has been in "tough shape" since the agency took it over in 2012, said Sacchetti, and the agency has spent the past eight years searching for a new location, and the Methodist Church was the first viable option it identified.

In a letter to the board dated Aug. 18, a group of 10 businesses expressed concerns that the proposed shelter would present "yet another obstacle to redevelopment of this gateway to our downtown." The letter indicated the businesses worried about guests smoking outside in groups, urging the applicants to develop plans for a smoking shelter, and also said there was "inadequate information" provided about security at site.

"Many of us question whether a homeless shelter should be permitted at all in the Arts Overlay District when there are so many nearby properties that can accommodate a 6,000 to 7,000 square foot building without significant impact on the neighbors," the letter continued.

ServiceNet has added a smoking shelter to its plans, according to designs for the structure that were sent to the Community Development Department on Thursday. Shelter proponents also agreed to create a "volunteer corps" that will "monitor and help address loitering and other unacceptable behavior in close proximity to the shelter" Monday through Friday for one hour before and after it opens in the afternoon, and two hours after it closes.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.


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