Homeless Committee Hears Data on Unsheltered Pittsfield Students

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Pittsfield Public Schools has around 50 homeless students this school year, with many living in shelters.

Deputy Superintendent Marissa Mendoza informed the Homelessness Advisory Committee about the unsheltered school-aged population last week.

"It's important to just kind of keep in mind of who is identified as homeless, who can be considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento federal act. So any student who's sharing housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason, who may be living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of adequate accommodations or living in emergency or transitional shelters, or who have been abandoned and hospitals would be considered homeless," she explained.

"If they also have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designated for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for humans. Students living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing bus or train stations, or similar settings or migratory children who qualify as homeless because they're living in circumstances described above. So those are the students who we can identify as homeless."

Homeless enrollment has stayed at around 50 in the 2022-2023 school year, with 43 in September, 45 in October, 47 in November, 51 in December, and 45 in January.

Of the 45 students identified in January, they come from 24 families. Fifteen were homeless upon entering PPS, 26 are living in a shelter, five are unaccompanied youth, 16 are doubling up with other families, four lost housing due to a variety of circumstances, and three are in a motel.

"The vast majority of students arrive to the Pittsfield Public Schools as homeless from outside of Pittsfield, they have been moved or relocated, usually by a social service agency," Mendoza reported, adding that a majority of students placed in local shelters are due to domestic violence.

Elizabeth Freeman Center's Executive Director Janis Broderick, who also presented to the committee, said it has been "all hands on deck" with an influx of calls on the domestic violence hotline.

"Last year, we responded to 1,022 callers and in just the first six months of this fiscal year, 597 survivors called our hotline," she said. "This is an increase of 262 percent over the year prior to COVID."

In the 2020-2021 school year, there was a total of 49 homeless students from 29 families in the district and in 2021-2022, there was a total of 68 from 33 families.

Mendoza reminded the committee that the 2020 and 2021 school years were significantly affected by COVID-19 and it was harder to track unsheltered students.

"The length of time a student remains homeless can range anywhere from one month to 24 months," she said. "The average for the Pittsfield Public Schools that students are identified as homeless is just over four months. A total of 66 students experienced homelessness at some point in the 2021-2022 school year, and in June of last year, 43 students remained on that list, 23 had obtained housing or had moved from the area."

When a student is identified as homeless, the district has an obligation to provide transportation to and from the school that they were enrolled in before becoming homeless.

"It is not always simple to provide a bus because we have, as you may have heard, there is a shortage of bus drivers in our city and around the country right now," Mendoza explained.

"So our routes are limited and sometimes we have to provide transportation through taxi service or other means."

Eight PPS students were transported to and from school by an outside vendor in the 2021-2022 school district at a cost of around $9,700.

One student was sheltered in Pittsfield and was transported to Holyoke Public Schools for a special program at a cost of about $9,300 that was evenly shared between Pittsfield and Holyoke.  

From January to June, one student was transported by an outside vendor within city limits at a cost of around $5,200 and in May the city cost was shared with Lee for transportation with an outside vendor for about $1,500.

Additionally, two parents were reimbursed from outside of the city and PPS shared the cost with Lee and Hancock, contributing about $232.

Also on Wednesday, committee members Justine Dodds and Kim Borden went in front of the Board of Health to explain the panel's mission.

Dodds explained they work with community leaders, city residents, and service providers and try to understand the needs of those who are homeless or who are at risk. Additionally, the committee explores different ways to address those needs and then recommends actions to address those needs that we have identified as part of our part of discussions.

A lot of the work they have done over the past couple of years has been dedicated to education on the topic. Early last year, they sent recommendations to Mayor Linda Tyer that included a housing resource center, which was later given American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Earlier that day, the committee had voted to sponsor a housing resource fair at the Berkshire Athenaeum.

Borden said the BOH could support the Homelessness Advisory Committee by being mindful of code enforcement in housing, such as holding landlords accountable to create a safe environment for people so they are not forced out of housing by unlivable conditions.

She explained that housing resources and better mental health services can assist the homeless.

"Better mental health services, better access, quicker access to mental health services is helpful for folks. Often times someone who really is in need, they've lost their therapist, their psychiatrist, or their med provider and it just snowballs, and the next thing you know, we have someone who is on the street because what's happening with them in their life is not being understood," she said.

"So access to services is huge. We have a wealth of services in our community to assist folks with housing search, with management to try and help navigate, so having the resources would be very beneficial.?"

Borden added that the resource center will be very helpful because it will provide folks with a meal and a shower, which is sometimes enough to enable a person to be willing to accept further assistance.

"It's important to be mindful that everyone deserves to have a roof over their head and it's something that I think we all take for granted," she said.

Tags: advisory committee,   homeless,   

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Construction Grant Changes No Longer Align with Berkshire Atheneum's Goals

By Sabrina DammsiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass — The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has adjusted this round of its construction grant program, no longer aligning with the Berkshire Athenaeum's goals. 
This grant round is really no longer a renovation program, library Director Alex Reczkowski said during a trustees meeting last week.
Interested applicants need at least two locations that they would be interested in pursuing as possible libraries or locations, not just the current library, he said. Acceptance of the award is once every 30 years. 
Although the library has some physical upgrades to the building in its strategic plan, it does not have enough data for a bigger project than that, Reczkowski said. 
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