PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Parks Commission says it's been "compassionately tolerant" of the homeless population sheltering in Springside Park but it's now time for them to leave.
The commission will be evacuating the park by Dec. 1 in hopes these individuals will choose to relocate to the recently reopened COVID-19 shelter at the former St. Joseph's high school on Maplewood Avenue.
Commissioners said their biggest concern is about the safety and well-being of the homeless individuals, but they are also concerned about the safety of the abutting neighborhood and those recreationally enjoying the park.
The city has received an uptick in calls from abutters and neighbors about what they are seeing at Springside Park. A number of campsites are visible from the roadways and people continue to see fires at campsites and damage to trees in the park.
A statement that was written in conjunction with a legal counsel was unanimously accepted by the commission, meaning that it can be taken to the next meeting for city personnel, ServiceNet and other providers to take steps moving forward.
The statement reads:
The Parks Commission has been compassionately tolerant of those who have used city parks for shelter during the summer. The temporary use of city parks during this past summer for shelter is at the sufferance and courtesy of the Pittsfield Parks Commission.
With cold weather and winter conditions fast approaching it is no longer safe to continue to allow sheltering in city parks. For the safety and well-being of those who have used city parks to shelter, effective Dec. 1, all park rules will be enforced including parks being closed from dusk till dawn.
A temporary COVID-19 winter shelter has been opened at the former St. Joseph high school on Maplewood Ave and has sufficient room to house those who remain in city parks. Breakfast and dinner are served at the shelter and services are available to help find permanent housing and other services that may be needed by those visiting the shelter. In advance of Dec. 1, staff from ServiceNet or other service providers will be available to assist people to move themselves and their property to St. Joe. If severe winter weather or low temperatures are forecasted before this date, for the safety and well-being of individuals, steps will be taken to accelerate this schedule.
After Dec. 1, all items remaining in city parks will be removed. The park rules are attached and will be posted to all city parks. We will also continue to use the bulletin board that has been installed alongside Springside Avenue to post information about housing, food, and public health services.
Christine Haley from the state Department of Mental Health and Kim Borden of Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority said they have been assisting the city as part of a team assessing the situation and the community's response.
"Really what we are trying to do is make certain that these folks are safe and are getting the information and the services that they need to get them out of this unsheltered situation toward permanent housing," parks Program Manager James McGrath said.
McGrath reported that there are about 10 or 12 encampments at the park, which is fewer than in the summer. He said individuals have moved into the shelter or to other housing situations.
"Most importantly at this point in time, we are gravely concerned with their safety given that the weather is changing rapidly," he said.
McGrath and the team are concerned because a number of people indicated that they are looking to hunker down and remain in the park through the winter.
ServiceNet is the main service provider for homelessness in the city and its personnel continue to visit the encampments daily trying to assess and meet needs.
"This is about striking a balance between health and safety and self-determination," Borden said. "And the right to self-determination allows them to decide whether they prefer to live outside in a shelter setting or in a shelter, but it doesn't necessarily allow them to reside wherever they want."
The homeless population may be subject to reasonable health and safety restrictions, she said, especially when there are safer alternatives available like the shelter at St. Joe's.
"Everything that could possibly be done has been done to offer services to these folks," Borden said.
Haley added that there was a well-organized plan to have folks go from the park to St. Joe's or to another setting of their choosing; that was supposed to happen by the middle of this month.
Parks Chairman Anthony DeMartino said this is a typical issue that usually addresses itself, but it is different this year because people are planning to stay in encampments and not take services.
"It sort of puts us in a difficult situation as a city and a commission that is providing for them and looking out for their safety and looking out for the safety well-being of those who use our parks," he said.
DeMartino said there are regulations in regards to this situation, and this is an opportunity to discuss enforcing them.
The proposed date is Dec. 1, to give them a couple of weeks to continue to find new options. As of that date, they would be encouraged and/or directed to relocate from the park.
"We are recognizing that the city has been compassionately tolerant and that it is appropriate given the safety risk that now exists and the destruction of property that has occurred," Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer said. "That it is time for the Parks Commission as the appropriate entity to say it's time to move on, and that is the type of message that would be brought to these people."
Enforcement by police isn't ideal, she said, but when they are called for disturbances they would tell members of the encampments that overnight camping is not allowed.
Haley said providers are feeling that allowing the situation to continue is more dangerous for the individuals at Springside Park.
She said the situation has been complicated by the distorting of information by some entities and that it would be easier if the information and the sheltering process were streamlined to get people into safer locations.