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The idea of a city-sanctioned camping area was raised at Wednesday's Homeless Advisory Committee.

Pittsfield Homelessness Advisory Committee OKs Open Microphone

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Unsheltered individuals and advocates will now be able to publicly communicate with the city's panel on homelessness during monthly meetings.
 
The Homelessness Advisory Committee on Wednesday voted to include a 15-minute open microphone at the beginning of their sessions, allowing members of the public to speak for three minutes each.
 
This was brought to the panel by Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio and passed 8-5 with Berkshire Department of Mental Health Site Director Christine Haley, Chairwoman Kim Borden, Community Development & Housing Program Manager Justine Dodds, Christian Center Food Director Karen Ryan, and re-entry facilitator at Berkshire County Sheriff's Office Michael McMahon voting in opposition.
 
Committee member Edward Carmel, who was not present at this meeting, has previously spoken in support of having an open microphone at meetings.
 
"I believe that this forum also should have an open microphone at the beginning of each meeting to be able to hear from advocates and the homeless themselves, because not necessarily every homeless person has access to television or computers, but they do have access to a telephone," Maffuccio said.
 
"This committee, as developed right now, by not having open microphone is limiting their ability, which is not fair. We are here to help them. We are here to better serve them. And then we are here to report to the City Council in the mayor. That's what this committee was developed to do."
 
Members agreed that an open microphone will be added with the expectation that communication will be respectful, productive, and based on serious concerns. Personal attacks or singling out of individuals or organizations will not be tolerated and will result in either being muted or redirected by the chairperson.
 
"It is important for individuals to have a place to share their voice," panelist Anne Marie Carpenter said.
 
Those voting against a community input segment had concerns about it becoming "hostile" and occupying important time during their monthly meetings that aim to be only an hour long.
 
"The former homeless committee, we had an open mic and I personally found it to be a little bit hostile, people would come and they would talk for three minutes and we never responded to it or anything, nothing really came of what was said," Haley said. "And I just feel like this committee meets for one hour every month and we have really important things that we have to talk about and figure out and plan for and to take time away from that just doesn't make a whole lot of sense for me."
 
Haley suggested that individuals experiencing homelessness and advocates request to be on the agenda so as not to muddy up the panel's time. She cited "personal attacks" in public comments from the previous committee that grappled with homelessness.
 
She also expressed that she finds open mic to be "useless."  
 
"I think that if we are going to have that, and we're going to use the time of the meeting for that, we have to identify what the purpose is," Haley added. "I get that the purpose is to hear from people in the community who are experiencing it but once we hear it, what are we doing with it?"
 
Dodds agreed that public comment segments became heated and pointed in the past.
 
"We're all kind of trying to figure out what best course of action there is, that if we did move to public comment would be on a limited basis, and maybe something like every quarter, rather than every single meeting," she added. "And again, have a limited forum where it's three minutes, or some other unit but not taken up the bulk of the meeting, because I do appreciate hearing from the public. But when we tried it last time, that really wasn't how it was used."
 
Maffuccio asserted that this is the best avenue of action to better assist those experiencing homelessness in the city, adding that many people may not have the ability to write a petition for the agenda and may not have access to technological capabilities beyond a cell phone.
 
At this time Haley began shaking her head in disagreement over the Zoom platform but did not provide additional comment.
 
"To me with these homeless individuals, there's at least six of them, they're out there on a daily basis, that can call in and tell us what's going on, and what the needs are at the immediate time," Maffuccio said in reference to the individuals that he reportedly checks in with regularly.
 
"This is supposed to be a constructive way of communication and by us not having it we are not following the Open Meeting Law."
 
Erin Forbush of ServiceNet supported providing accessibility to meetings to community members but believes that many persons experiencing homelessness are capable of petition writing.
 
"I do want to respectfully disagree with Councilor Maffuccio," she said. "There are many people that are affected by homelessness that are very capable of petitioning, speaking, doing what they need to do, and there are also folks that don't have access to certain electronics."
 
The committee also discussed the Parks Department's new policy and signage program that addresses overnight camping in city parks after a presentation from Park, Open Space, and Natural Resource Program Manager James McGrath.
 
In March, the Parks Commission endorsed a draft plan to evacuate and prevent homeless folks from overnight camping in Pittsfield parks. It will be taking up the draft plan once again in the April meeting, so McGrath said the homeless committee's input is critical.
 
Actions include installing new signage and increased awareness of park rules, cleaning abandoned sites and monitoring for new ones, leaving "friendly written reminders" of the overnight camping rules at sites, a bulletin board with information on sheltering and helpful services, and circulating community reminders on the best ways to direct goodwill to those in need.
 
"You know, it's not only Springside, which has been the primary focus, but there are several other parks where we're seeing this as well. So no action was taken at that meeting on this draft plan, the Parks Commission understood that the service providers as well as your commission, the Homeless Advisory Commission would be reviewing this draft plan. So your input this afternoon is critical," McGrath said to the panel.
 
"This is just an attempt to continue to put the word out that tent camping in our city parks shouldn't be considered an option."
 
At this point in time, the proposed policy required no voting from the panel, but Maffuccio urged his colleagues to take no action on it.
 
"We as a board and representative of the homeless cannot support a proposal like this because to support a proposal like this, you're being prejudiced against homeless individuals, we cannot support a prejudiced law or anything that consists of any top type of restrictions, what the parks department does is their responsibility and ramifications will be made against them," he said.
 
"There are several people out there, we do not have enough housing for all these individuals to take advantage of. If there are 60 to 70 people out on the street and ServiceNet has provided up to 40 beds. We have more homeless than we do beds for them to sleep and so why don't we get some real hard numbers."
 
The favorable alternative to homeless individuals camping in city parks is to enter the ServiceNet shelter at the former St. Joe's High School or Barton's Crossing on North Street, but Ryan made a well-received suggestion that the city facilitates a legal campground for those wishing to stay outside.
 
"I think we can take some of this under advisement as this continues to evolve," Dodds said. "I recognize that some of the committee members are going to be working, going back out to try to get some numbers around this and talk to people and try to find some options for people and services and like I said, have an open conversation about some proposed solutions to provide assistance to this population."

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Downtown Pittsfield Inc. Eyes Strategic Plan, Reflects on 'Rough Year'

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Downtown Pittsfield Inc. is emerging from the pandemic year with the intention of developing a strategic plan process that includes all of its members and stakeholders. 
 
The goal will be to think about how Pittsfield can be a thriving place to live, work, and play for all members of broader communities.
 
President Branden Huldeen explained that he sees three ways that everyone can move forward together: innovation, collaboration, and the very important work in equity, diversity, inclusion, and access.
 
"I want to recognize it, it's been a rough year. And rough is probably the kindest word I could probably use for right now. But I'm proud of the number of businesses that have been able to push through so far," Huldeen said at Thursday's annual meeting.
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