A panel consisting of Mayor Daniel Bianchi, Jay Sachetti of Service-Net, Brad Gordon of Berkshire Regional Housing Authority, the Rev. Quentin Chin, Frank Busener of the sheriff's department and Mary McGinnis held a forum Monday about the homelessness issue.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Trouble may have been averted for this winter but who knows what will happen in the future for the city's homeless.
Berkshire Health Systems donated $45,000 to Soldier On and Barton's Crossing to open a total of 20 beds for homeless individuals needing somewhere to stay for a night this winter. The 20 beds will help make up for the lose of 36 beds for single-night stays at the Salvation Army — the Cots Center operated by Stockbridge-based Co-Act.
Co-Act operated the center but the organization was looking for a new location because of regulations (such as one that allows religious facilities to only operate as a shelter for seven consecutive days) and other issues with the location. Executive Director Paul Deslauriers said the group looked at multiple locations but each had fallen through.
Last month, led by the city's Director of Administrative Services Mary McGinnis and representatives of clergy, service organizations and city officials gathered to find a way to replace those beds before the winter.
The Rev. Quentin Chin, pastor at First Baptist Church of Pittsfield, said after looking at multiple options, "it isn't easy" to open a shelter in a short period of time because of various regulations and needs.
Then Berkshire Health Systems filled the gap for this year.
"We can handle it this year," Mayor Daniel Bianchi said on Monday when the organizations reunited to discuss progress.
"But we have an obligation to develop a plan for the future."
And the group is now looking to form a panel of stakeholders to start addressing the issues, including still some lingering ones for this winter. The $45,000 donation will allow for Soldier On to open a 10-bed unit for men and Barton's Crossing is opening another section of its facility to serve 10 beds of men or women. The Soldier On unit is already open and Barton's Crossing is preparing.
However, Soldier on is OK for "wet" — those who are substance abusers — while Barton's is only for dry, leaving women who struggle with substance abuse with no place to go.
On Monday, those two organizations were criticized heavily by those in attendance because Co-Act had been cut out of the equation.
"We could have done it with that $45,000," said Deslauriers said. "We had 36 beds last year and we did it for $6,000."
The mayor said the group needs to collect as much data as it can to help lobby for more federal or state funding to solve the issue.
In defense, Jay Sachetti, vice president of shelter and housing for Berkshire Services — which runs Barton's Crossing — said the money will go for programming as well as temporary sheltering.
"We're not just sitting there and having people go in and out. We're trying to break the cycle of homelessness," Sachetti said.
Barton's Crossing is opening a rear wing of the building at 1307 North St. for temporary needs, adding security camera there and paying for staff to work with the individuals. The goal is to sort through the causes of homelessness and connect the individuals with resources they would need to get into long-term sustainable housing.
McGinnis supports BHS's choice to give the money to Barton's Crossing because it has the "infrastructure" to support it. But, she says there is still a lot more to be done for the future.
"It's never enough when you talk about homelessness," she said.
Another issue regarding immediate needs is help for families. According to Ellen Merritt of the Christian Center, a family of nine from North Adams has been looking for help but has been hitting roadblocks. The family had lost their Section 8 subsidy and was evicted from their apartment. Since they were already recently using a subsidy, there is little help out there for them to get something else, she said.
There is only one shelter in the city for families and that has a waiting list, Merritt said.
Brad Gordon, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Housing Authority, said the state allocated $250,000 in July to the county in Prevention Residential Assistance for Families in Transition grant funding to help families. But that had been used up quicker than any other community.
"We have already expended all of that money on families," Gordon said.
Chin says homelessness is exasperated in the Berkshires because of a lack of affordable and transitional housing. Many of the poverty-stricken people he meets in food pantry and dinners are paying more than 60 percent of their income to pay rent - on the edge of becoming homeless, he said.
But in the short-term, Gordon said those looking to help solve the problem should advocate for two bills in the State House — one expanding health care to substance abusers and one raising the minimum wage. Those start to get at the root causes of homelessness, he said.
"These are things right before us and they will make a significant impact," Gordon said.
Bianchi said the city needs to "have a better understanding of the numbers" to convince state and federal agencies to grant them money to implement long-term solutions. The stakeholders are now planning on getting together for more meetings to continue looking into solutions.
Despite some frustration from Co-Act about being left out of the funding this winter, Deslauriers says the organization is not giving up and plans to be part of the conversations.
"We have some clear and cost-effective ideas so we want to be part of the long-term solution," he said.
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