Respectful conversation fuels hope for Pittsfield officials, homeless at Springside Park

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PITTSFIELD — "There's a lot of misinformation going around."

That was the assessment of Erin Forbush, director of shelter and housing for ServiceNet, during a gathering Thursday evening under the pavilion at Springside Park.

At the request of the homeless residents of the park, Forbush facilitated a discussion on issues such as housing solutions and park policies. Also on hand were Mayor Linda Tyer; Parks and Open Space Manager James "Jim" McGrath; Roberta McCulloch-Dews, the city's director of administrative services; and Jay Sacchetti, ServiceNet senior vice president of shelter and housing, vocational and addiction services.

The park has been an increasingly popular destination for the city's homeless in recent weeks, capturing the public's attention and concern. ServiceNet is a mental health and human services agency that operates homeless shelters and services in Pittsfield, Northampton and Greenfield. The agency officially has been contracted by the city since 2012 to provide these services.

But, the response by the city and ServiceNet to the Springside Park encampment has drawn fire from residents and community activists, largely through social media platforms. Some of the homeless drew up a petition saying they don't want ServiceNet to intervene with other volunteers who are offering help.

On Thursday, Forbush offered residents an olive branch — a few party-size sheet pizzas from Big Y — and asked for a respectful conversation.

"I want you guys — and I will fight for you guys — to have as much information as I have," she said.

The hourlong meeting was, at times, polite and featured calm discussion, elbow bumps and thank-you's; at other times, it was punctuated by shouting, finger-pointing and head-shaking.

Participants inquired multiple times about a GoFundMe campaign that reportedly has raised nearly $13,000 on behalf of Springside Park's homeless. The fund was started by community advocates for the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community, an agency that provides employment, housing, basic and social needs support, and operates independently in the city.

City and ServiceNet officials told the homeless that they have not yet met with representatives from the RLC but that they would reach out to them.

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In a detailed July 29 statement emailed to The Eagle, Western Massachusetts RLC Director Sera Davidow said that its Pittsfield center, on North Street, runs on an annual budget of about $75,000, including all rent, utilities and personnel costs.

"Early on in the pandemic, we expanded our open days from three to six so that we could be available to people living on the street or who otherwise weren't having their basic needs met. Over these five months, we've spent thousands helping folks to get phones, chargers, clothes, food, tents, backpacks, Narcan, and more," she said.

When the shelter at the former St. Joseph Central High School closed in July, Davidow said, she initially gave volunteers the green light to purchase items on their own for the homeless at Springside Park and later could be reimbursed. Now, she is putting that process on hold, which has caused some turmoil.

"First, funds that we receive should really be spent by our employees and must be spent with tax exempt paperwork in hand. Secondly, we need to have some order to the process so that dollars are not double spent and we can make sure we are getting what is actually needed and not wasting resources buying duplicates of what people already have on hand or what has been donated directly," Davidow wrote.

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She said the RLC fronted money to volunteers for the purchase of $500 in bus passes, and about $5,000 was spent on items like hygiene supplies and tents.

Some members from the homeless community say they have not received bus passes, and are uncertain who the RLC volunteers and staff are amid all the other community volunteers who have been dropping off items at the park in recent weeks.

Addressing the concern of fires in the park after the Fire Department responded to a recent call there, McGrath told the homeless, "I'm concerned about the landscape. I'm concerned about, you know, this structure [the pavilion] here. I'm going to make sure that this is safe and healthy and clean, and that's why we're coming on Mondays to clean it. And I appreciate all the work that y'all have done to clean it. You know, the park looks great."

McGrath emphasized that he wants to ensure that neighbors and visitors also feel safe and welcome to the park and its amenities while the homeless are there.

Solutions: At what cost?

Sacchetti addressed questions of what it would take to provide an alternative shelter to house more people than the current capacity of 10 beds at Barton's Crossing.

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"It would take a lot of space; it would take an awful lot of resources: $3,000 a week for food; one staff, that's $175,000 for one year," he said. "It's not this magic formula. Every community in the state of Massachusetts is wrestling with this. Every shelter has a decreasing number of beds across the entire state."

Sacchetti said the agency gets "about $280,000" from the state each year to cover its regional operation. Tyer said the city kicks in $31,000 a year.

Tyer told the group that a meeting of 20 to 25 representatives from "small agencies" took place Wednesday to help discuss next steps. The mayor said that group didn't involve the homeless, community members or volunteers "because we need to understand all of the individual roles that each of the agencies plays and all of the resources those agencies can bring to the table."

The mayor said appointments to the homeless prevention committee would be discussed during the City Council's Aug. 11 meeting.

John Patrick "Scooby" Skubel, a homeless park resident, asked Tyer, "What is your key plan?"

"We want to help you find a safe, secure, stable environment," she said. "That's what we want for all of you."

"Is there a game plan for that yet?" asked another homeless park resident, who asked only to be identified as Chris. He raised the facts that homelessness is not a new issue, and that the city and ServiceNet also knew the St. Joseph shelter was temporary.

"It's going to take us some time to build that plan," she told him.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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