PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday sent a group of petitions regarding the city's homeless population to the subcommittee on Public Health and Safety.
The three petitions ask officials to consider measures to safeguard the homeless and begin a conversation about homelessness within the city limits.
"I am glad we are having this discussion, and I look forward to hearing it," Councilor at Large Peter White said. "This has been an issue here for a long time and having people live in the park is not a long terms solution."
Ward Councilors Patrick Kavey, Christopher Connell, Kevin Morandi, and the Chairman of the Homelessness Commission Edward Carmel signed on to petitions asking the administration to set up revenue sources to aid the homeless and to answer some of the questions surrounding the closing of the temporary shelter at the former St. Joseph's High School.
This shelter was the subject of the first petition and the councilors asked Mayor Linda Tyer to set the record straight on what actually happened at the temporary shelter.
"There is a significant amount of misinformation that has been circulating," Kavey of Ward 5 said. "I think in order for us to be able to make sure we have the proper plans in place ... to create short-term goals pertaining to our homeless population and our long term goals we need to have a very clear and transparent understanding of what happened at St Joe's."
The shelter closed in July and since then the homeless have taken up residence in city parks, most notably Springside Park.
Tyer first outlined the city's role in the shelter and said, although it did provide some resources, the shelter was managed by ServiceNet.
"This was a collaborative effort ... and we stood it up in a very short period of time," Tyer said. "Our role was to really provide resources to prepare the building for occupancy."
She said the city used federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funding, to clean the property and provide some basic maintenance. It also provided an accessible ramp and a trash roll-off.
The mayor said the shelter was always supposed to be a temporary shelter related to the pandemic and that in normal circumstances, it could not be used as a permanent shelter because it did not meet code.
Originally the shelter was going to be used to isolate homeless residents possibly infected with COVID-19. Once the state opened hotels across the commonwealth for this purpose, the shelter pivoted for any overflow.
Tyer said it was ServiceNet's professional decision that the shelter needed to close.
"It was up to them to figure out how to function and how to operate," she said. "The city of Pittsfield does not have that expertise. We are not trained professionals, and we are not social workers. We were clear on what our role was and it was really ServiceNet's determination when to close the shelter."
The committee referred a second petition to public health and safety asking the director of finance to provide a full accounting of all funds and labor costs expended at the homeless shelter. Although this was provided, the council wanted to continue this conversation.
A third petition was also referred to public health and safety asking the mayor to authorize using $75,000 from free cash to assist the homeless in acquiring temporary and or permanent housing.
Connell of Ward 4 acknowledged that $75,000 was an arbitrary number, but he wanted some discussion on putting funds towards the homeless.
"This represents a starting point. This represents seed money," he said. "How do we use it, how do we distribute it, is this the right dollar amount ... The amount is not carved in stone, but I think ... the intent is to start addressing this and provide a little bit more than what ServiceNet is providing.".
The City Council voted to file the final petition requesting that a revolving fund be set up before the start of fiscal 2022 to assist the homeless by utilizing 5 percent of the marijuana tax revenue.
Finance Director Matthew Kerwood first said this is not possible for a few reasons. Among them, a revolving fund cannot be created with outside money and must be programmed revenue that pays for program expenses.
He said the city could set up a stabilization fund but this would require a minimum of 25 percent of the marijuana tax revenue.
Councilors at Large White and Earl Persip did not want to further cut up this revenue stream or base programs on a revenue source that may not be consistent
Kavey did ask about funding he believed the city should receive from the state because Pittsfield was disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. Kerwood could not speak to this in the context of setting up a revolving fund, and Kavey said he would explore it further.
The councilors agreed and did not want to ask for any amount of money without a plan.
They discussed the next steps and debated whether they wanted to send the petition to the mayor or the homelessness prevention commission. But there was a sense that the council needed to move sooner than later with winter and the anticipated second wave of COVID-19 around the corner.
"I have gone to Springside park multiple times and I have brought volunteer nurses with me," Kavey said. "They have dealt with wound care, they have dealt with things that should not be happening in our city parks, and I think this is something we need to talk about now."
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon suggested sending the petitions to the Public Health and Safety Subcommittee. She felt council-run meetings would be more productive and they could invite stakeholders including ServiceNet, members of the Homeless Prevention Committee, and actual homeless residents.
Kavey added that it would be an opportunity to question ServiceNet and noted there was a sentiment among the homeless that the Barton’s Crossing site was substandard.
"I understand why the people who are living in the park right now would not like to go back to a facility ServiceNet is running," he said. "...This is happening in our city this is our job...if you saw the pictures on my phone right now you would not want to be there either."