Some ponder Kennedy's sincerity in homeless visit

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PITTSFIELD — Publicity stunt, or a way to shine light on an often overlooked issue?

The visit by U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III to a homeless encampment at Springside Park this week sparked a debate in local political circles. While some say a visit from someone as high profile as Kennedy, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Ed Markey in a Sept. 1 primary, can only bring more attention to the issue of homelessness in Pittsfield, others see it as just another campaign stop for the cameras.

Park residents have their own opinions, though most are more concerned with getting access to services than the debate over the visit.

"That's a good thing, because if none of this stuff was out here on this table, nobody would be knowing about nothing," said Gregory Mathews Sr., a park resident who spoke with Kennedy during his visit Monday.

But one park resident said those who are homeless can be wary of being photographed, adding, "Half our families don't even know we're homeless."

Kathy Austin, a Pittsfield resident who often visits the park to offer help, said consent is difficult to gauge with people who are vulnerable.

"Those people were scared to say no," said Austin, who added that she has been homeless. "No one understands that part. They were scared to do anything but what they were told to do, and that has to stop."

Regina White, a community advocate who visits the shelter many times a week, said she cleared Kennedy's visit with those living in the park Sunday, after Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington asked about bringing Kennedy.

"They got dressed in their Sunday best and they were out here at 7 a.m., all excited," White said. "I watched from afar. Joe sat right down with them, sat right with them and talked to every person individually. It wasn't a photo-op. It wasn't at all."

During an interview, White called over a park resident and asked whether the individual felt that Kennedy had been sincere.

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The individual replied, "No, I think it was a publicity stunt."

White later told The Eagle that park residents "feel much better now" after seeing messages in which Harrington offered to bring her laptop and work with residents to get legal help.

In a phone call later in the day, the individual clarified that they don't resent any officials who visited Monday but wanted to avoid feeding the press a narrative "that we got all the services when we weren't getting the services."

Pittsfield Ward 1 City Councilor Helen Moon expressed discontent on Twitter with Kennedy's use of cameras Monday.

"We should be getting firsthand accounts and honoring the real-life experiences of our vulnerable and marginalized communities," she told The Eagle in an interview Tuesday. "I think it becomes problematic when the onus of the event isn't necessarily to hear from their experiences, but to get promotion out of it. ... It was a campaign stop."

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Kennedy's campaign responded in a Tuesday statement to The Eagle.

"Joe spent an hour at the camp meeting and speaking with the men and women that live there — as he has done at countless shelters, recovery centers, and camps across the state," said Mike Cummings, the campaign's deputy communications director. "It's unfortunate that a supporter of Senator Markey's would try to politicize the visit. We hope the Senator would agree with Joe that folks struggling with homelessness need more — not less — attention from elected officials in Washington."

Moon, who has tweeted in support of Markey over the past two weeks, said her support in the race shouldn't undermine her point. Springside is in her ward, and she visits "a few times a week" to provide wound care. "This is about respecting people."

When asked about social media posts questioning Markey's visits to homeless shelters, Markey campaign manager John Walsh responded, "I appreciate whatever anyone thinks about it, but every Thanksgiving Sen. Markey goes to the local shelter, and he goes and he serves dinner."

Harrington, who said she visited Springside on a police ride-along last week, told The Eagle that Kennedy wanted to see Springside himself, after she updated him on what was going on in the community. She said she views the visit as "a very positive event," adding that it would inform Kennedy's legislative work.

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"I made sure that the people who are currently residing in the park knew we were coming ahead of time," she said. "I was told that they were enthusiastic about the visit. People came down to the pavilion specifically because they wanted to talk to Joe, and people were very enthusiastic to share their stories and share their experience."

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, also said he stands by the visit.

"Joe has been in Western Mass. countless times, and I'm okay that he stopped in Pittsfield on this trip to meet with people experiencing homelessness and dealing with the weight of COVID and other issues rather than merely putting up a podium and giving a speech," Hinds said in a Tuesday statement to The Eagle. "I have only known Joe Kennedy to be incredibly thoughtful and engaged in policy, and that means ensuring he understands what is happening in our communities while using his position to bring attention to issues we are all grappling with."

Austin said the pressing needs — for park residents to get IDs and experts' help with addiction — remain. While visitors Monday brought food, Austin said it's better for donations to go through an agency like ServiceNet, which has a contract with Pittsfield to provide services to those who are homeless, to improve coordination and diminish waste.

"If something would've changed out of this visit, I would've said, `Hey, cool,' " she said, noting that trees fell on some tents during Tuesday's tropical storm. "But all these people slept in the rain."

White said she believes that Kennedy, Harrington and other visitors would follow through on any commitments they made to park residents.

"They sincerely care about you," she told park residents Wednesday. "I would never lie to you."

The bottom line, said a park resident who asked to be identified as Michele M., is that the search for permanent solutions must continue.

"Help us achieve a place to live. Stop buying pizza, stop buying McDonald's, because that's not housing us," she said. "At the end of the day I'll still go to bed by myself, in my tent on the ground."

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.


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