Wave of concern blankets homeless in Pittsfield park
PITTSFIELD — Each morning, between 6:30 and 7, the pavilion at Springside Park dawns with activity.
SaDowell Hudson and his new fiancee, Saboorah Vargas — they got engaged there in July — are among the first people to walk out of the woods and over to the pavilion, in the southeast section of the park adjacent to Pine Street.
Hudson said it's his first time being homeless.
He lost his job at a local manufacturer after struggling with an injury, he said. He has been collecting Pandemic Unemployment Assistance from the state and has put in 15 applications for housing but has hit a wall with requests for credit checks and the typical down payment for two months' rent.
"We don't have money like that," Hudson said. "If we had money like that, we wouldn't be here."
Yet, here they are — and they are not alone.
The 230-acre park — it's the city's largest — is home to an estimated 25 to 60 people on any given day, according to homeless residents, community advocates and city officials. With a lot of ground to cover and no official census taker, it's hard to keep count.
Homelessness and housing insecurity are nothing new to the city of Pittsfield — or Springside Park in the summer. Since 2012, ServiceNet has been the agency the city contracts with to help its homeless and manage the Barton's Crossing shelter.
Typically, emergency shelters close at the end of May. But, because of COVID-19 protocols, Barton's only has the capacity to shelter 10 people a night, so a 24/7 emergency shelter was set up this spring at the former St. Joseph Central High School, serving up to 50 people at its peak.
The recent closing of that emergency shelter has spurred a wave of concern for the city's homeless.
Hudson and Vargas are among several who came to the park after, they say, they were "kicked out" of the St. Joseph shelter when it closed and could not secure a bed at Barton's. Others there left the shelter months earlier, particularly as the weather warmed.
Some of the park homeless receive support from ServiceNet; others decline it.
"I've been homeless for five years," says a man who talked openly about his experiences but asked that his name not be published. He had been sleeping at the pavilion with some bedding he keeps rolled up. He since has received a tent donated by community volunteers and has made up his own campsite deep within the park. For him, shelter life and shelter rules don't suit his lifestyle. He moves around and works various jobs for income.
"When I came here five years ago, I was the only guy in here. Things have changed. There's definitely more now," he said.
The Springside pavilion has become a social gathering place and a makeshift clearinghouse for an influx of daily goods. Some park neighbors, church group members or other thoughtful folks quietly leave breakfast items in trays or boxes on the pavilion's picnic tables. One day, it's a Dunkin' delivery, with individually bagged pastries and bagels and a Box O' Joe; the next, it could be servings of sausage, egg and cheese scooped, sealed and labeled in plastic foam cups.
Some days, morning through afternoon, cars pull up with people dropping off additional supplies. Other people offer services.
Sharon Bachand is a registered nurse from Mt. Greylock Extended Care, which is adjacent to the park on the North Street side.
"Rents are outrageously stupid for some folks around here," Bachand said while dressing a deep wound on the right elbow of park resident "Scooby" and talking to him about housing.
Bachand and other nurses have volunteered to help treat wounds, aches, pains and other issues. Some park residents struggle with chronic health conditions and diagnosed disabilities, ranging from diabetes and lupus to substance use and post-traumatic stress disorders.
For now, the city of Pittsfield is trying to accommodate the park dwellers, rather than evict them.
Portable toilets with exterior hand sanitizer pumps were installed in the park last week. ServiceNet, according to the mayor's office, now will be collecting any unclaimed items at the pavilion tables at the end of each day. The agency, which receives funding from Pittsfield and the state, has been directed to store the items collected and distribute them as needed.
While there are ongoing community efforts to provide meals and other necessities for the homeless residents, delivery of those goods has been inconsistent in recent days, some say.
At the pavilion, Hudson said he is frustrated but is trying to make the best of things.
He has managed to find clean clothes and saves up to get to a hotel room every now and then so the couple can take showers and have some personal space.
Vargas has given herself the daily task of sorting and organizing the food, clothes, toiletries and camping supplies and distributing it to the various homeless people there. She is from the New York City borough of Brooklyn, she says, pointing to the affirming tattoo near her neck.
"I learned how to do this with my church after the hurricane," she said in reference to her sorting technique. She said she learned it when she helped in the relief effort for those affected in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy.
"Do you have a tent?" "Do you need a tarp?" "Check out these clothes."
"I just gave you three lights yesterday!" she said to Scooby, sounding like a mother scolding her teenage son.
"She's The Queen! That's The Queen over there," said Scooby, 50, who sports a faded tattoo of the popular cartoon canine on his arm. The Pittsfield native introduces himself with his full name, John Patrick Skubel.
"Us out here, we stick together," he said.
Several city and state officials, volunteers and church outreach folks have taken it upon themselves in recent weeks to visit "the camps," "the encampments" or the "tent cities" of Springside Park, as they have been called, to see for themselves how things are going.
Many have been directed to "The Compound," where they often will be greeted by a woman who asked to be identified only as Michele M. She lives there with her husband, her rescue dog NumNum, and at least four other people.
The site, started a few months ago, features several blue and gray tents set up beneath tarp awnings and arranged around a communal area outfitted with donated chairs. There is a fire pit for cooking and warmth. A free-standing counter and storage area have been set up with some reclaimed boards and woven branches, keeping pans organized and dry goods off the ground.
Much of the structural handiwork has been done by camp mate Dave Rossi, who said he used to fix up houses for a living. He came to the Berkshires in November, after ending a relationship with his partner in Ireland, with whom he has children.
"I just had to get out of there, and now I just have to work and reflect on where I'm going in life," he said.
Rossi also elected to leave the shelter life. He previously had stayed at Barton's Crossing and the St. Joseph site.
For now, he enjoys his company in The Compound and taking in the lush trails of the park. He said he is grateful for people's generosity of donating goods. He and others take pride in their efforts to keep the park tidy.
"We want to make sure the mayor and others understand that we're being very eco-friendly and we're not leaving garbage," Rossi said.
There is a Bohemian look to this tent enclave. Michele has her own tent, lined with throw rugs and a bathroom area in one corner. Outside, she has found some flowers and a few art pieces to use as decor.
She loves her coffee and quickly will put it on the embers when guests from her church or other visitors come by. On a recent Friday afternoon, she claimed an enamel percolator that someone dropped off at the pavilion. She carried it off beaming with pride.
She and her husband, both self-described faithful Christians, came to the park, in part, to be together. In shelters around here, residents are separated into dorms by gender. They primarily keep to themselves and receive donated food, support and ministry through the Berkshire Dream Center.
Michele, who grew up in Stockbridge, says she has been living on and off the streets since age 15. She now is 54 and says she is in substance abuse recovery.
She said she is guarded with homeless newcomers until she feels satisfied that they are good people and not into heroin or other drugs beyond marijuana.
"I don't want drugs here," she said. "I don't want paraphernalia here."
But, she knows what she does want.
"We want a little tiny home with land," Michele said.
For now, she also wants a solar charger or solar generator for their phones and an electrical source, wood pallets and plastic sheeting to raise the tents off the ground and keep them dry, and bug spray and citronella candles to help keep away mosquitoes and other pests.
Running water, she said, also would be nice, but at the moment, she is content with the stream they have made their camp by.
"We're planning to stay for the winter," she said.
Unless they get evicted, or that opportunity for their own land comes up.
Whichever happens first.
Jenn Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.
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