Pittsfield Parks Commission Endorses Plan to Rid Parks of Campers
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The city of Pittsfield wants the public to know that overnight camping in city parks is "not an option."
The Parks Commission on Tuesday unanimously accepted and endorsed a draft action plan to address overnight camping in the parks under its commission policy. This policy addresses the influx of homeless individuals who began seeking shelter most popularly at Springside Park in the summer of 2020.
It is comprised of a number of elements including a great emphasis on signage in parks, updating a communal bulletin board of resources for those experiencing homelessness, violation notices to overnight campers, and "aggressively" monitoring existing sites.
Park, Open Space, and Natural Resource Program Manager James McGrath presented the commission with pictures of a current Springside encampment over the Zoom platform.
"I just want to be very clear about what's happening in Springside Park right now, this is an image from the current encampment north of the playground, it's quite extensive, in fact, grown since the summer of 2020," McGrath said. "It is currently occupied by a handful of individuals, and I don't know if anyone has had a chance to venture into Springside and see this for yourself. I thought this is an important and telling image, this is what's happening in Springside."
McGrath said the individuals in the encampment are "known to the city and to the service providers" and actions are being made to connect them with services and "meet them where they are at."
"There was probably, you know, nearly half a ton of garbage removed from several campsites required the Parks Department loader, and a large dump truck to remove everything," he continued. "This needed to be cleaned up, these were abandoned campsites, these were clear health hazards, this is dangerous not only to the park workers, but you can imagine, to park users as well, and certainly the wildlife in the area. So, when we find these abandoned sites, we will clean them up."
The city plans to implement signage in the park system that outlines the expectations of users. In areas where camping is common, it will be made "very clear" that other activities associated with camping such as open fires are not sanctioned by the commission due to park rules and regulations.
A bulletin board of resources currently exists along Springside Avenue, which will be continually updated. McGrath said the city has regular contact with local shelters, food, mental health, and addiction services that will be featured on the board.
"This is really important, I think for the unsheltered community," he added. "This is accurate and trusted information."
The plan also includes installing information signage about services at places where unsheltered folks might congregate such as the Christian Center, the Recovery Learning Center, and at the ServiceNet shelter at the former St. Joseph's High School.
McGrath said an important part of the city's strategy to empty the parks is violation notices, which will be posted on existing and new encampments.
"We want to make certain that the tone of the messaging is one that allows them to understand that there is support out there to help meet their needs and that support is only a phone call or a visit to an office away," he explained.
"So the violation notice would also indicate a date by which there's the expectation that they would vacate the park and if they leave behind personal belongings, those would be gathered and there would be a phone number by which they could call and make arrangements to retrieve their personal, their personal items, we're very, you know, we want to make certain that through this process, which certainly can be disruptive to them, we want to make certain that we're doing it with decorum."
Chair Anthony DeMartino read a correspondence from the president, vice president, and secretary of the Springside Conservancy.
"We applaud the city's efforts and understand the difficulty of their position," the letter reads. "Springside Park is a beautiful park for all citizens to enjoy. We wish to see the positive resolution of habitation. Those are the positive resolution of habitation at Springside Park for the benefit of health, benefit of health, and safety of all involved. We wish to see these displaced individuals find safe and secure living settings that meet their needs. We also wish to restore Springside to the beautiful park we know for all to enjoy. Living in Springside is not healthy, safe, or desirable. We urge support of the ongoing efforts of the city and service providers to find a solution to this difficult situation."
Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer, who is not a member of the Parks Commission, responded to concerns that were raised over the policy's legality.
"For the benefit of this commission, and want to make sure you know that we have been that this draft committee policy has been reviewed with the legal counsel and city legal counsel," she said. "City legal counsel was made aware of the concerns that were raised by one committee member and are very comfortable with the city proceeding with the with the policy at this point in time."
Homelessness advocates believe that this policy is in a way criminalizing homelessness and cruelly kicking people out when they have no place to go.
Former Commissioner Joe Durwin resigned from the panel in November when they made the decision to revoke the "compassionate tolerance" stance that allowed folks to stay in the park over the summer and move forward with ridding the spaces of encampments.
Former Homelessness Prevention Committee president and member of the Homelessness Advisory Committee Ed Carmel told iBerkshires that the city needs to stop assuming or asserting what unsheltered folks need and simply listen to them.
Carmel said he consulted with individuals in Springside Park after McGrath and re-entry facilitator at Berkshire County Sheriff's Office Michael McMahon reported having contact with them and received different feedback in regards to their needs.
He believes the city can help the unsheltered by seeking input from those who have directly experienced homelessness rather than having a panel of individuals where the majority have not.
"A homeless person fantasizes because that's all we have left," he added. "And when somebody asked a person that doesn't know the homeless mentality, which is very smart by the way, they don't know what they're thinking, they could say something, but it's just something that came off the end of their tongue."
Tags: homeless, parks commission, Springside Park,