Shelter closes, leaving homeless in the cold

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PITTSFIELD — An emergency homeless shelter at the former St. Joseph Central High School closed on Monday, putting even more stress on the city's capacity to house some of its most vulnerable residents.

To compound the problem, the city's permanent shelter is operating at reduced capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic and is already full.

"Right now, they got their cots filled, so if their cots are filled, everyone else is just on the streets," said a former St. Joe's resident that asked to be identified only by her first name, Jessica.

She spoke on the sidewalk Monday outside the Maplewood Avenue building, where a sign on the door notified the shelter's closing as of July 13. Someone wheeled a black fridge down a ramp into a truck parked outside, and Jessica said she was trying to get materials together for her Pittsfield Housing Authority application before the agency's office closed at 3 p.m.

She said she'd been in and out of Barton's Crossing and then St. Joe's since November, using money she receives through social security stay in a hotel room when she can. She spent the night inside the hulking former high school on Friday, when she learned the temporary facility was coming to an end.

Staff told residents of St. Joe's end date the week before, but Jessica said she hadn't been there. By Friday, all 10 of the cots Barton's Crossing were spoken for, she said.

"There's a lot of people here that say they don't have a spot. There's a lady here that said she's gonna sleep at the laundry. Another one said the post office," said Jessica. "I'm stuck in my car. So the plan is the McDonald's parking lot, and that's where I'll sleep."

ServiceNet operates Barton's Crossing. Its vice president of shelter and housing, Jay Sacchetti, said state-mandated physical distancing rules required the shelter reduce its capacity by half.

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"We typically serve 20, but we're only contracted to serve 10 now," he said. There are also 13 permanent supportive housing beds at Barton's Crossing.

The overflow shelter opened in April to prevent overcrowding at Barton's Crossing. Mayor Linda Tyer had originally said St. Joe's would serve as a place where homeless people could stay for coronavirus-related isolations and quarantines, but the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency chose to use a city hotel for that purpose.

Tyer's office said she was not available to comment on Monday.

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Sacchetti said a lack of funding and stress levels of the staff led to the closing.

But there are not enough beds at Barton's Crossing for everyone who requests one, he noted, and that capacity was an issue before the pandemic-induced distancing rules reduced the number of beds it can have at its facility, he said. Demand for beds has increased every year since ServiceNet took over Barton's Crossing and a number of temporary housing units for families in 2012.

Over the course of 2012, around 124 people received a shelter bed through one of the four programs it operates in the city, said Sacchetti. "Now we've pushed well into the early 300s. I think we're at 325," he said.

The temporary shelter launched toward the start of the pandemic, and was never meant to be a permanent addition to the city's existing homelessness services, Sacchetti said. It's been tough for employees as well as ServiceNet's finances, he said.

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It's unclear whether state reimbursements will materialize to cover the expenses of operating the temporary shelter in July, during the first few days of the new fiscal year. He said, "We've been basically staffing it for free for the last three weeks."

Ed Carmel previously experienced homelessness and leads the city's Homeless Prevention Committee, which he said is down members and hasn't met for the past few months, when in-person meetings have been off the table.

He estimates somewhere between 20 to 30 people are "back on the streets or out in the woods" following the end of the temporary shelter at St. Joe's.

Last week, several people sought supplies at the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community on North Street. "They were begging for tents, begging. Because they knew on Monday they were gone," he said.

Ann Marie Jones, an advocate who was also formerly homeless, said the coronavirus pandemic has only made a difficult situation worse for direct homelessness service providers with limited resources and the people they serve.

"The emotional temperature of the homeless community is very high," she said. "There is just so much change since COVID, and so much concern."

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


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