Pittsfield Council Rejects Petition on Homelessness in City Parks
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Ward 2 Councilor Charles Kronick's second attempt to evacuate homeless encampments was shot down by the City Council on Tuesday.
His request to postpone all of the Parks Departments' future funding requests and grant approvals until the prohibiting of camps in Springside Park is enforced failed 8-2 with himself and Councilor at Large Karen Kalinowsky voting in favor.
Instead, the councilors referred Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey's petition asking for an update on the initiatives the city is undertaking to address homelessness to Mayor Linda Tyer.
"The purpose of my petition is to formally recognize the City Council as a legislative body that is completely distinct from the administrative body of the mayor's office, and I've been calling upon us to exert our financial authority and adopt this resolution," Kronick said.
"And this is really an expression of common sense. We can debate from time to time what is objectively, perhaps [an] emergency for emergency grants and what is something that has to be, absolutely must be done, but this sends a message that the City Council is looking at this problem that we have and we are in agreement that we have, that we will be keeping our eye on the budget requests going forward."
In his petition, he wrote that "Springside Park is in such a degraded state due to the damage caused by homeless camps which endanger abutting properties and present grave health risks" and that the "park is completely inhospitable to the taxpayers who are the lawful owners of it."
Kronick argued that the proposal doesn't aim to criminalize homelessness or defund the department but his colleagues said otherwise.
"This petition, to me, reads as an attack on homeless people, people who are poor," Councilor at Large Earl Persip III said, adding that the people need to be supported and none of them want to live in the park.
Persip said the city needs to focus on other things like the 28-unit transitional housing project that is proposed on West Housatonic Street. He pointed to the opposition that was raised about the project at a city meeting last week, speculating that people don't want homeless camps in the park but also don't want unhoused people in their neighborhoods.
"We all talk about — most of us talk about [how] we want to actually help. Everyone wants to help from a distance though so let's keep our priorities straight. I won't support tabling this. I won't support passing this. I will support things like the two other petitions on the table," he said in regards to Kavey's petition and another petition from Kronick requesting a progress report on the city's Homelessness Advisory Committee.
"I will support future things of funding and actually getting people transitional health, those are the things we need to focus on. We need to spend our energy there in finding solutions. This is not a solution in my opinion at all. It is an attack. It's criminalizing them."
Persip agreed that things like aggressive panhandling need to be addressed but said most of the campers in Springside Park are "good tenants."
Kalinowsky was one of the people who spoke against the transitional housing proposal last week and defended her stance, saying she is not against the project but wants to see it done right. She feels that the proposed building is too large for the parcel and that there is not enough parking.
"It doesn't mean that we don't like the homeless and we think badly of the homeless," Kalinowsky said about Kronick's petition. "It means something needs to get done."
Ward 3 Councilor Kevin Sherman said he understands that the frustration is there but wants to address the issue in a productive way, not a "one size fits all Draconian measure" against the entire parks population in the city.
He believes that a community discussion and an update on the city's initiatives for the homeless population and an update from the Homelessness Advisory Committee makes sense and that punitive action does not.
"I think we all agree it's a huge issue. We all agree that we want to have people in homes, not parks, not tents and so forth," Sherman said.
"We want folks to have a quality of life across the board whether it's the unhoused or the housed."
He added that he did not support Kronick's request for a public hearing on the homeless encampments at the last council meeting because it would open the door to air grievances, hearsay, and things of that nature.
Councilor at Large Peter White said the city needs to be addressing the issue by using funds to help house people and have systems of support in place as it has been doing. The city recently allocated $8.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for housing initiatives.
"I don't like this painting with a broad brush that homeless people in our community are bad people and they're specifically causing problems," White said.
"Yeah, there may be some who harass. That's a different issue. We shouldn't be trying to criminalize the fact that they don't have a place to live. We shouldn't be trying to tell our entire parks system that we're going to shut it down and not accept any new money coming in from the state for things that the entire community can benefit from because we have a homelessness issue."
Kronick emphasized his stance on protecting property rights, saying taxpayers and renters own the park rather than the homeless. He said property rights are the "essential tenet of liberty" over human rights.
"The fundamental purpose of our City Council is to represent our constituents. They own the park in this case. They own Springside Park, not the campers, not the homeless, they don't own the park," Kronick said.
“The people who pay the taxes on the park, it's their park and the purpose of government is to protect the property rights of the citizens, whether they be renters or owners. We have property rights. That’s all, that’s probably— If I had to choose just one thing that a government is (required) to do, and I had to kick all the others out, human rights, whatever, and I’d kick them all out and I could choose just one it is the protection of property rights, that’s the essential tenet of liberty.”
Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey pointed out that unhoused people are still residents of the city and speculated that the actual enforcers of the petition would be the police, who he doubts would be willing to forcibly remove them.
"When we sit here and we say that they can't live in our park, but we also don't want to support some type of housing where we put them then what's the solution? We want to take them out of the park but we don't want to house them so where are we going to send them? Are we going to put on the bus and just send them out of the city or are we going to give them the services they need to reintegrate back into our society?" he said.
"It's just, we don't want them in the park but we don't want to create housing for them. We want to criminalize them but what are they doing that's illegal aside from living in the park? The argument here just I guess isn't there. I would much rather wait to see how the mayor is spending $8.6 million to combat homelessness in our community than just make assumptions and listen to hearsay about what's going on."
Kavey also noted that he was able to identify 30 to 35 on-street parking spots for the supportive housing proposal on West Housatonic Street.
Ward 6 Councilor Dina Guiel Lampiasi said that some spoke of holistic approaches to the unhoused population with coded language that they need to be treated criminally, which she said is "disgusting."
"I will not support this petition. I will not support any petition that seems to treat our most vulnerable residents — not the people in the homes — criminally but the most vulnerable people are the ones that are not in a home. OK?" she added.
"This is not a productive petition. This is not helpful. This petition has nothing to address the issue at hand and in the city of Pittsfield we're not going to criminalize poverty."
Three constituents attended the meeting to speak in favor of the petition and Kronick took the open mic stand to read a letter of support from another.
Concerns of "blight" and safety were raised.
"Springside Park is in an undesirable state due to damage caused by homeless camps and there's a steady decline of worship at the churches because they're set up in the churches, especially the Christian Science Church," Delaware Avenue resident Michael Barosso said.
He attended the previous council meeting to speak of the blight that the camps cause and was disappointed to learn that the council rejected Kronick's petition for a public hearing.
Local business owner Luke Marion found Kronick's petition "disturbing" and urged the council to have compassion toward the unsheltered population.
"We cannot treat and discuss homelessness in such terms. They are not the blight. They are troubled and many cannot afford to live in an increasingly gentrified Pittsfield. I feel that most times in the city issues of the unsheltered and unhoused populations are met with this type of rhetoric, that they must be moved to the benefit of the higher social strata, business owners, wealthy tourists overwhelmingly white middle class, etc," he said.
"This is illustrated quite wonderful by a very disturbing item on tonight's agenda concerning withholding funds from the Parks Department until the unsheltered living in Springside Park are pushed out to who knows where. It is my understanding, in addition to poor water quality, that the shelter in the former St. Joe's high school was not taking in new people this week due to security reasons. So where's the city hoping to move this blight? Why can we not treat our unsheltered population like people like actual human beings? I hope we can all see that a panhandler in Park Square doesn't look as bad for a city is speaking about prices like this with cruelty and inhumanity."
In other news:
A request for a 10-year tax increment financing (TIF) agreement for Interprint was referred to the finance subcommittee. The TIF is expected to save the company $482,000 over the next decade on an estimated $1.9 million more in valuation. The current valuation of the property is $5,580,300. The decorative printing company is also receiving $300,000 in state Economic Development Incentive Program credits through the state's Economic Assistance Coordinating Council. The company said on Monday that it will invest $22 million into its Central Berkshire Boulevard facility for additional printing presses and is planning a 57,000-square-foot expansion. It will be addressed at the subcommittee's meeting on Oct. 18.
- A petition from Kalinowsky requesting that North Street be returned to its original design was placed on file. Kalinowsky reported that she is looking into making the request into a ballot question in the 2023 election, claiming that the one-lane configuration with bike lanes is dangerous. A recent road report of the corridor showed a 77 percent crash decrease after the lanes were implemented. Managing Director of Downtown Pittsfield Inc. Rebecca Brien spoke in support of the bike lanes during open microphone. She reported that downtown residents have said the new downtown traffic configuration is more bike and pedestrian safe and calmed traffic.