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Unhoused Pittsfielders Bracing For Another Difficult Winter

A man wearing a mask in jeans and a coat stands by one of several tents in the woods.
Josh Landes
Jeremy Smith standing next to his encampment in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on December 15th, 2020.

With the first major winter storm on the way, the unhoused residents of Pittsfield, Massachusetts are bracing for a long, cold season with little hope in sight.

“I’ve done a lot of cleaning around here to keep it as good as I can, to make sure we don’t get kicked out of here,” Jeremy Smith told WAMC at his encampment Tuesday.

Berkshire natives Smith and Jolene Collins are living rough in Pittsfield. The engaged couple, both 40, have a pair of tents in a patch of woods set behind a residential neighborhood not far from the city center.

“Right now, things are a little on the rough side right now," said Smith. "As you can see, we're camping out in the woods. Things, work, work’s not as steady as it was, things aren't going as well as it used to be. And Pittsfield is really not doing much for anybody right now.”

They’re just two of dozens of city residents living in a network of hidden encampments sprinkled throughout the city’s 40 square miles. Smith says the options the city are offering people like them come with too many challenges to take seriously.

“They have the shelters, but they lock you in at 6 o'clock at night," he said. "You can't go anywhere, you can't come out, you can't go. And then during the day, like, if you leave during the day, you have to be in at 6 o'clock at night. And then you're not allowed to go out. You can't do anything. So if you want to go to the grocery store or do anything, you can't, because once you walk out the door, they lock the doors and won't let you back in.”

Beyond that, Collins has health issues that make packing into close quarters during the pandemic too risky – leaving them with little choice but the woods.

“It’s really hard to explain," she said. "Really rough nights, rough days. It's really cold. Nothing out there really to help. Just, it's hard. It really is.”

“She cries every night," said Smith. "Every night. You know, it's like, I don't know what else to do anymore. I really don't. But everywhere I turn, you know, people say they're going to help you, they'll take care of us, this and that. And nobody does. Nobody comes through for anything anymore. So it's just like, you know, it's me and her. And that's all there is to it. You know?”

The couple are both recovering from substance abuse disorders, and every day is a struggle to stay safe, warm and fed.

“I can't pay $800, $900 for a bedroom, for a two bedroom apartment," said Smith. "I can't do it. I have two kids that I take care of. My son just joined the Air Force, so I don't have to worry about him right now. But my daughter lives in New Hampshire. You know, I haven't seen her in three years because everything has been such a struggle. And what am I supposed to do? I can't put my daughter in a tent. I can't have her come down and visit me and stuff like that. So it would be nice if like, Pittsfield stepped up for people like us, and got rooming houses and put stuff like that to where we can afford it, you know? I could do $100 a week, $400 a month, something like that.”

Smith says they haven’t been contacted by the city’s service providers about their situation.

“It’s a shame," he said. "It really is a shame that it's come to this, because nobody should be living in a tent in the middle of the wintertime. It shouldn't be happening, you know, and like I said, at least I have a place to cover, to lay down. I have something over my head right now. Like I said, it's not the most ideal situation. But at least my fiancé has somewhere to go. You know, she doesn't have to walk around the street struggling, trying to figure out where she's going to go, or the two of us being separated, and her being in one spot and me being in one spot.”

For its part, Pittsfield says it’s been working with to provide unhoused people with services, find them apartments and steer them toward city shelters – including the emergency facility at the St. Joseph High School building downtown.

With forecasts of the season’s first major storm projected to dump over a foot of snow on the Berkshires, Smith – who works in construction, sometimes for upwards of 12 hours a day – says he feels despondent.

“I work, you know, 40, 50 hours a week, which doesn't do anything for my fiancé or for me to even afford a place to live right now, you know," he told WAMC. "And I just I don't know what else to do right now. It's, it's hard. It's, it's hard. And then wintertime is coming, you know. It's here. So it- We're living in a tent with no heat. So it's, this is crazy. I don't, I don't know what else to do right now. I really don't. I'm doing the best I can right now for everything that I have. You know, hopefully things are going start picking up with work, and stuff like that. But it doesn't seem like things are starting to get easier. It kind of seems like it's getting harder and harder.”

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