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Al Nelson, co-founder of the Friendship Center Food Pantry, speaks during the February Northern Berkshire Community Coalition meeting.
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Brad Gordon, second from left, of Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, speaks.
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The February Coalition meeting focused on homelessness.
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North Adams City Councilor Ben Lamb records people getting excited to vote for North Adams in the Small Business Challenge.
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Amber Besaw, director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, speaks at the February monthly forum.

Coalition Forum Focuses on Housing Insecurity in North County

By Rebecca DravisiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Around 75 people came to the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition monthly forum on Friday to talk about homelessness.

But first, they had to take a quiz.

And the answers to those questions were a sobering lesson in the extent of the problem of housing insecurity in Northern Berkshire County.

According to slides presented that were based on data from Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, for example, 33 percent of people in Berkshire County are renters; that number jumps to 48 percent in North Adams and 41 percent in Adams, while Williamstown numbers match the county average. Of those renters, more than half — 56 percent — fall into the category of "rent-burdened," meaning more than 30 percent of their monthly income goes toward housing, and 29 percent are "severely rent-burdened," meaning more than 50 percent of their monthly income goes toward housing. Of the homeowners in Berkshire County, 35 percent are "mortgage-burdened."

Add to that the statistic that 37 percent of Berkshire County residents are considered "very low-income" or "extremely low-income" (in North Adams that jumps to 48 percent and in Adams that number is 44 percent, while Williamstown comes in just below the average at 30 percent) and that means a lot of Berkshire County residents are barely scraping by.

"The more they are over that amount, the more likely they will face housing insecurity or even homelessness," said Brad Gordon, executive director of Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, who provided most of the context of Friday's meeting.

Statistics also show that official policies favor helping higher-income homeowners over helping renters; $90 billion was given in mortgage interest and real estate tax deductions, with 90 percent going to households making more than $100,000 — versus only $50 billion dollars going to rental assistance programs. Decisions on deductions and assistance programs are policies that our elected officials make based on their priorities, Gordon said.

"We don't value renters. We particularly don't value low-income renters," he said.

Other policies like the current minimum wage also play a role; the quiz let Friday's meeting attendees know that minimum-wage workers would have to work 53 hours a week to afford the average one-bedroom apartment, 65 hours for a two-bedroom and 80 hours for a three-bedroom.

"We need to find the right resources for struggling families," Gordon said.

So what are those resources? For families or individuals already past the breaking point and dealing with homelessness, Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority can help direct them to temporary housing at shelters around the county, including Louison House in North County, which served 88 individuals and families in 2016. Individuals and agencies can speak out when state cuts are proposed to keep funding coming, and people with financial resources can donate money to help keep those facilities operational. But Gordon cautioned against thinking that money alone will solve the problem.

"It's great to give people money. But it's an opportunity to interact with people in a more meaningful way," he said.

Amber Besaw, executive director of the Coalition, echoed that, saying that her philosophy of working with people who approach The Family Place for financial assistance is to find out what the need is so the family is not back every month asking for money.

"[We don't want to] Band-Aid one moment in time," she said.

The discussion also involved whether today's students are taught home economic-type skills in school anymore, and whether that should be something expected of parents not schools anyway.

"Why are we not equipping parents with these skills?" Besaw asked.

And just learning how to start the conversation is a huge step, said Al Nelson, co-founder of the Friendship Center Food Pantry. Nelson said they sometimes ask people who come to the food pantry where they live and don't know how to respond when the answer is "I'm homeless."

"We just don't know. We freeze," he said.

Gordon emphasized that just knowing to send people to the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority for an official intake to determine need and assistance is really the most vital step.

"Use your existing resources," he said. "That's a really good starting point."

Connect with the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority online. Louison House, a transitional shelter currently located in North Adams, can be reached 24 hours a day at 413-663-6323, ext. 4.

Tags: affordable housing,   homeless,   housing,   NBCC,   

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