PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Mayor Linda Tyer this week said the city of Pittsfield is feeling discouraged from the lack of community organizations willing to host a warming shelter that will house homeless individuals during the hours that the St. Joseph’s temporary winter shelter on Maplewood Avenue is closed.
“We’re concerned too, and we’re feeling quite discouraged that a number of our community partners have declined our request to help with a daytime warming center but we’re not going to give up,” she said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio addressed the mayor with two petitions in regard to the homeless population.
Maffuccio requested that the mayor, or other departments or organizations, provide an update on the plans for a warming station for the homeless and that the mayor develops a task force for the purpose of developing a permanent housing solution for chronically homeless residents.
These petitions were both referred to Tyer by the council.
Tyer reported that her office has been holding a weekly meeting comprised of community agencies and community partners providing services to help individuals who struggle with substance use and mental health issues.
These issues are often contributing factors to residents finding themselves homeless.
Beginning in September, the city’s Office of Community Development has been meeting every other week with Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, the Berkshire Housing Development Corporation, Pittsfield Housing Authority, and ServiceNet to try and find solutions for homelessness in Pittsfield, she said.
Last week, the city had a session with the executive director of Worcester’s modular-built micro-units to house the chronically homeless. Tyer said the city is “very interested” in understanding this project in greater detail and will be meeting with the architect of the project to see if there are elements of the model that could be replicated in Pittsfield.
This project includes 25 studio apartments with kitchenettes and bathrooms; 24 units are for the chronically homeless and one unit is reserved for a residential manager who works out of an on-site office to help residents manage things like finances and give access to mental health services.
“We are making very specific efforts in this work,” Tyer said.
Maffuccio expressed concerns for residents of homeless shelter in the former St. Joseph’s high school who do not have a warm place to be from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. when they are not able to be at the shelter.
“We’re getting some cold nights here, and I know personally myself I am thankful to come home at night time and I don’t want to be out walking the streets during the afternoon, and even today it was a breezy day out,” he said. “It’s cold out there and I have a lot of sympathy for the individuals that are walking around all day.”
While understanding that COVID-19 has highly affected in-person services such as warming shelters, he feels that the city needs to address this gap in sheltering.
In normal times, before the COVID-19 pandemic, there would be a warming shelter provided by the sheriff’s department, the Salvation Army, or Soldier On, Maffucio said, but these organizations are not offering to host a warming shelter this year.
Maffucio said Sheriff Thomas Bowler had told him that the old jail on Second Street could not be used as a warming shelter this year because of the different organizations that reside in the building at the moment and because of staffing issues.
“I’m just wondering in my head,” Maffuccio said. “From 8 to 4, where besides roaming the streets or going into a Cumberland Farms and loitering or going into another store and loitering are they going to get warmed and have coffee supplied to them?”
Tyer said the common challenge among community agencies is COVID-19 and that some organizations don’t have the ability to staff a warming center.
She also informed the council that the temporary shelter at St. Joseph’s is open all day on Saturday and Sunday, and all day on holidays. If the temperature goes below 20 degrees between shelter hours, the shelter will open its doors to residents all day.
“I know that is very cold, but that is their standard operating procedure,” Tyer said.
Maffuccio feels it is sensible for ServiceNet, which runs the temporary shelter, to provide a warming shelter in a different part of the school building because it is large in size and can accommodate it.
This model would also prevent more community members from coming in contact with the population that could possibly be housing asymptomatic COVID-19, he said.
“It would make common sense to me that ServiceNet is running a homeless shelter with 50 beds and the building is large enough for them to make their own warming center between those times in a different part of that building,” Maffuccio said. “Seeing how the community partners are very reluctant and have no plans to participate in warming shelter.”
Maffuccio said there is currently $5.8 million in permanent housing solution grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that could be used to develop a cluster-type building that houses 20 or 30 micro-units for the chronically homeless.
“There’s a lot of grant money out there that can be used and acquired if the right people are in place.” he said.
This general theme was discussed in last week’s Public Health and Safety Committee meeting, which housed a conversation about permanent supportive housing for individuals that are not prone to enter a shelter because of trauma, problems with crowded areas and regulations, or fears of COVID-19.
Maffuccio said he would just like to get the ball rolling on this project in the city because there are individuals who live in the shelter that can be housed in more permanent units that include a single room apartment with a kitchenette and bedroom.
He decided to make this a joint referral to Tyer and Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer.
Tyer assured the council that she agrees with these sentiments and that the city needs aggressively search for solutions for the homeless population that includes single-occupancy housing and supportive housing.
“We are working on every possible solution that we can so we are open, if any of you have ideas we welcome them,” she said to the council.