PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Parks and Recreation Department is monitoring homeless encampments popping up in city parks.
Parks and Open Space Manager James McGrath fielded some of the parks commissioners' questions and concerns Tuesday about the influx of the homeless in the city parks — most notably in Springside Park.
"This is an ongoing conversation, it is a very delicate one, and it is one that requires a team approach," McGrath said. "We stand ready to assist, evaluate, and continue to have conversations around this unprecedented situation."
The city had set up, in conjunction with ServiceNet, a temporary shelter at the former St. Joseph's High Shcool, however, this facility shut its doors earlier this month after running out of funds.
Commissioner Joe Durwin said although encampments can be found in many city parks at this time, the largest gathering seems to be at Springside.
"I think there are a lot of questions and I think there are a lot of rumors swirling around," Durwin said. "I think just as a commission, with these large numbers of people living in the parks right now, we have to ask what are we going to do."
Durwin said he spoke to some of the homeless and they feared that their belongings would be thrown away if left unattended. Durwin added that the city has asked police to not evict the homeless or remove their belongings and asked McGrath about the Parks Department's position.
McGrath said the plan is to follow the city's lead and the Public Services Department's parks division is taking a "hands-off approach."
"They are simply noting and passing along information," he said. "Where the encampments are found ... we are not going to remove their tents or other personnel belongings."
He said they are reporting information to ServiceNet, which tracks many of the individuals staying in the parks.
The fate of the homeless who had been staying at St. Joseph's was raised this week after accusations that they were forced out at the last minute and their belongings trashed.
Jay Sacchetti, a senior vice president at ServiceNet, in a letter to The Berkshire Eagle that has also been posted by others on Facebook, said there had been upwards of 50 people staying at the former high school during the worst months of the COVID-19 outbreak. The agency had also offered case management assistance to 55 individuals and founding housing for 30. At the time the temporary shelter was shut down, he said there were four people who the ServiceNet had a "challenge" assisting because of behavioral issues.
Officials say those using the shelter were given three weeks notice of the closing and another 10 days to pickup any belongings. However, there were accusations that individuals trying to pick up their things were not able to access the building and their belongings — including medications — were thrown into the trash.
Mayor Linda Tyer said ServiceNet is conducting on-site visits to the encampment at Springside.
"They have noted that some individuals are interested in obtaining these services, while others are not. Regardless, ServiceNet has assured the city that they will continue to support and engage with members of this vulnerable population," she said in a posting on Facebook.
The Community Development Board on Tuesday also continued a hearing on a proposed shelter application from First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street, reportedly after hearing from public opposition for nearly an hour.
Parks Commission member Simon Muil said he was concerned about the aftermath of the parks encampments and wanted to know if there was a cleanup plan in place.
McGrath said the department has started this conversation.
"We are talking about standing by and being ready," he said. "We want to make sure certain plans are in place to deal with this quickly and safely."
Durwin did add that during a recent cleanup of Springside Park it was noted that the park was cleaner than ever.
"Everyone commented ... on the condition of the parks and trails," he said. "They said it was the cleanest they have seen in years so there is a level of stewardship right now with some of the people staying there that I appreciate."
Durwin asked McGrath if it was possible to provide the encampment running water or bathrooms. He asked if it was possible to open park facilities.
McGrath said it may be possible and he would bring it up during future conversations about the matter.
There was also a sentiment among the commission to create some sort of policy regarding homelessness in the city parks.
McGrath said this, too, could be achieved and a draft policy could be brought before the commission for discussion.