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Pittsfield’s Plan To Remove Unhoused Park Residents Raises Questions, Concerns

A sign for Springside Park
Josh Landes
A sign at Springside Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts has set a December 1st deadline to remove unhoused residents living in public parks.

The city’s Parks Commission made the decision at its November 17th meeting.

“For the past eight months, the city Parks Commission has taken a tolerance, a compassionate tolerance approach to the issue of unsheltered in our parks," said James McGrath. "And they've made an exception to the no camping rule due to the impacts of the COVID crisis. But with winter fast approaching, the commission felt it could no longer enable or condone camping and Springside or any park, for that matter for the health and safety reasons of those individuals.”

McGrath is the city's parks and open space program manager. While unhoused city residents are living in multiple public parks, attention has centered on encampments in Springside Park, located just north of downtown. Congressman Joe Kennedy III even made a high-profile campaign stop there in August with District Attorney Andrea Harrington during his unsuccessful primary bid against Senator Ed Markey.

“ServiceNet is the local homelessness provider in the city has been making regular contact with folks who are living within Springside Park," continued McGrath. "So they really understand the needs of these individuals. And you know, with the new shelter, that winter shelter that's opened up in the St. Joe's facility, that is an option for folks. But there are other options as well. And ServiceNet will work individually with folks to help them understand the range of options, because really, at the end of the day, it's all about getting these folks out of the park and into safe housing.”

“I read the term ‘compassionately tolerate’ and I don't really know what, I'm not really sure what that's supposed to mean," Helen Moon told WAMC. "You know, to me, that sounds like the unsheltered, the helpless in our city, are a problem that we have to tolerate instead being members and individuals in our community. There are, I would say, at this point, I think that the last count I heard was near 100 people who are unhoused in this area.”

City councilor Moon represents Ward 1, where Springside Park is located. She says the decision raised red flags.

“My first thought went to how are we enforcing this evacuation order," Moon told WAMC. "Are the police going to be involved? Is this going to be a way to criminalize poverty? And I know that that's not necessarily the intention by any means, but can end up being the final result.”

“The city isn’t about to come in and heavy-hand enforce on December 1st that everyone has to leave," said McGrath. “There's a layered approach that we would take, a compassionate approach. But at the end of the day, we recognize that, you know, some of these individuals may be unwilling to leave, at which time other resources may need to be brought in to resolve the situation.”

“I think it's symbolic of the way this entire, kind of, humanitarian crisis has been handled since spring of 2020," said Joe Durwin. "Since it really first came on the radar, which has been kind of disconnected and, you know, very much driven by the administration's preferences.”

Park Commissioner Durwin says he’s resigning from the five-member body due to long-running frustrations and the decision to empty the parks.

“There's been poor and inconsistent, you know, information from the official narrative," he told WAMC. "Case in point being, I think, you know, every month since July, the Commission has heard, you know, that the number of people in camps at Springside Park is going down. And yet, you know, I mean, if you look closely at the statements at all, they continue to indicate that it's hovering around a dozen people, which is where it was in July, and that's where it is in late November. So I think there's a spin on it that has been a problem for many years, with kind of wanting to whitewash a little bit the seriousness of the problem, the fact that we're really only discussing Springside Park when it's not the only city park, where people are living outdoors right now. And it's far from the only outdoor location in the city that has people.”

He’s got doubts about the plan to empty Springside.

“There's been not sufficient investment and action, you know, on the part of the city and I think, insufficient oversight, you know, to insist on accountability from service providers and some of the other players that are involved in trying to help us," Durwin told WAMC. "And I think there are there are some good organizations and some good people that are working really diligently and I think there have been some great successes that we haven't heard about in terms of housing people. But I just don't see how, you know- I think it's unlikely that simply telling them they can't be at Springside Park or city parks will lead to 100% of those individuals being indoors in two weeks. I don't think it's going to be a smooth transition. And I don't think putting a deadline on it with potential police enforcement at the end of that deadline is safe for everyone involved.”

“What got me into the park was we heard that the shelter was about to close. And a night or two, probably about a week before it was actually supposed to close, before we heard, I found the man in my bed, a drunk man in my bed," said Michele Mathews, 54, one of a dozen or so people living in Springside.

She’s been there since April. Before that, Mathews was staying at the St. Joseph High School building the city had temporary converted to emergency housing.

“I’ve been married for 25 years, and my husband and I were not allowed to sleep in the same area even although other men can clearly freely go into that room, because they couldn’t be, you know, seen, you know. And there was no heat, no hot water,” she told WAMC.

Mathews, who says she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder related to sexual assault as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, does not want to return to a city shelter – despite a recent incident with a donated propane heating device that left her and her husband sickened from carbon monoxide.

“It's just not a safe place for me," she said. "They can't keep me safe, they can't guarantee my safety. They can't guarantee I won't be attacked, and they can't guarantee I won't catch COVID. And so I don't know, what do I do? I, we have tried to get an apartment. Now they want three times, they want your income to be three times the amount of the rent. And I understand that because so many people have lost their jobs with COVID. I get that. You know what I mean? But it was almost impossible for us to keep a roof over our head before this. I make $800 a month. That's hard to live off of, especially with no housing or nothing. I'm over 50, my husband's a vet, my father was a vet. And still they're like nope, can’t help you. And now they want to take us and kick us out into literally into the street with nowhere to go that’s that safe.”

Mathews says her group at the park identifies as Christian, and has nothing to do with disturbances ascribed to some park residents.

“Anybody could be here at any time," she told WAMC. "And people who are thinking, you know, looking at me and looking down on me right now and wanting to throw us out and all that other crap- It could be any one of them. Any one of them. I have a daughter I just buried two and a half years ago from a heroin overdose. Since then, I've lost like five young kids that age that knew her. Do you know what I mean? I mean, there's so much stuff going on right now. I mean, it's just so much to focus on, but you want to focus on is us homeless people, and throw us out into the streets with nothing and that just doesn't sound right.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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