Pittsfield Councilors Look to Aid Homeless
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — After a while of living on the street, homeless people get comfortable.
They're not going to walk into a local service agency and ask for help. They're going to struggle with health problems. And they're going to continue living wherever they can find a place to sleep.
Edward Carmel knows this because he's been there. He's been homeless and he says once you are homeless, you will always have that mentality.
"When you've been homeless for so long do you know what's in your mind? You don't want a home. You're comfortable where you are. It is like an addict, you are comfortable where you are. We need to change the perception of homeless people justing wanting to be homeless in Pittsfield," Carmel said.
Carmel has found his way off the streets and now he wants to help those who haven't. He is petitioning the city to let him restart a homeless commission with the goal of checking in on people living on the streets every single day.
"There are homeless people on the street right now, as we speak, and they are finding a place to sleep like a cardboard box like you see on TV. They're here in Pittsfield," Carmel said. "I wanted to open this committee and find members that will be diligent to check on these people daily. Because what is going to happen is you are going to find dead people."
The city is now entertaining the concept. But other regional groups focused on homelessness are warning of too much bureaucracy. Brad Gordon, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, wrote a letter to the City Council saying there are already too many committees meeting and that yet another one would only make it more difficult to actually provide services.
"The homeless commission served a very important role at one time, especially when there were no other coordinated initiatives to address homelessness. However, frankly, it is already extremely difficult to meet the demands of these meetings, some of which are mandated by funders and regulation, and have enough time to implement high-quality programming for the people in our community," Gordon wrote.
"Adding another committee to the already comprehensive array of existing committees seems counterproductive to me."
Gordon said he served on the city's homeless commission in the past and that has since morphed into a Berkshire County Continuum of Care Committee to address the matter in a regional manner. It has teamed up with other Western Massachusetts groups and now has access to federal and state resources that weren't otherwise available.
He said there are many groups and agencies that meet regularly, and through that coordinated effort there are a number of subcommittees that residents can join to help the effort.
But Carmel says he wants something specifically for Pittsfield and he doesn't believe those other agencies go deep enough when working with the homeless.
"A homeless person goes into these committees or one of these facilities like Berkshire Housing or ServiceNet. They are just mainly given a bed a meal. They're not asked how they feel, do they have problems physically like diabetes."
He said he encountered somebody on Friday who had trouble with their hands and face. He wants somebody to check on those chronically homeless, get them free health checkups, and truly have one-on-one conversations with them to find out exactly what they need.
"I don't see anyone from any of these services checking on them daily. They could be checked on daily. It doesn't take long," Carmel said. "I was homeless. I know how they treat you in Pittsfield."
He said many agencies step up when the winter comes, but during the summer the homeless are getting bitten by bugs and dealing with ticks and other hazards of living outdoors.
"I want them to be people in the community. I wanted them to be respected people of the community. And they can work that with the right people that they talk to. I'm asking you to please consider this strongly," Carmel said.
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon lives near the Boulders and says she sees tents set up often. She has seen homeless living in Springside Park. She saw them on North Street when she worked downtown. The other agencies are often "underfunded, underpaid, and understaffed" and she sees a local committee as a good way to have that extra helping hand out.
"I want to have Pittsfield to look at it as our own city and how we can be leaders in the conversation for our residents here," Moon said.
She and Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo sponsored Carmel's petition and despite the conversation with Gordon are sticking by their conviction that the committee is the right thing to do for Pittsfield.
Councilor at Large Peter White, on the other hand, is a little more reserved. He too fears there could be redundancies in the work they do and would like to move forward if there was a clear understanding of what this committee would do differently. He said many committees tend to be advisory in nature and not doing the hands-on work like Carmel is suggesting.
"I do have concerns when somebody who is deeply involved with this, and has been involved in this, is cautioning us against it," White said.
Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers said she sees a role for such a committee because it provides that local, one-on-one touch. She said elected officials too often craft programs and policies from one perspective and lack another -- a point Carmel made when he said that he'd be asking the homeless what they need.
"We're trying to personalize those efforts and make them more one on one. There are people in our community who want to do this, who want to reach out to our homeless," Rivers said. "If we can save one life, if we can save one person, then I think we did a great thing for our community. I know that one-on-one, personal touch is going to help people."
Meanwhile, Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said bringing in a new voice is never a bad thing. He said a new set of eyes to the issue will be valuable.
"When you are involved with something for a very long time, your in a nonprofit, been doing this work for decades and decades, you tend to get in a groove. And you tend to get in a frame of thinking. That's no disrespect to anybody, that is any of us," Krol said.
The councilors agreed to move the petition along and craft a plan for the revitalization of the Committee on Homelessness.
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