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WAMC News Series: For some, holiday season doesn’t lessen daily struggle

The Krupas stand at an intersection holding a sign in front of an American flag flying over a Wendy's.
Josh Landes
Jodie and Shawn Krupa.

We’re focusing on holiday traditions this week on the WAMC News Series. For some, the holiday season isn’t any easier than the rest of the year.

On a cold December morning at the Berkshire Crossing shopping complex, Shawn Krupa, 39, stands at a busy intersection holding up a handwritten sign.

“Please help, very cold," he read. "Need helping hand. Thank you.”

The thermometer says it’s 34, but with the wind-chill, it feels at least 10 degrees colder. A stream of cars pass Krupa as they exit the plaza lined with box stores.

“There's a lot of nice people," he told WAMC. "But there are a lot of negative people that throw things at us, spit at us, tell us to get jobs. And you know, I wouldn't be out here if I could go get a legitimate job. I've had job offerings, but then they notice I have one leg and they don't put me on, you know what I mean? And then they put stuff on Facebook about us. So that's horrible, the things they put about us on social media. It's kind of rough. It's rough, definitely.”

Krupa lost his leg working for a carnival.

“A 600 pound sign fell on top of me," he said. "And I also have a broken back and I wear adult diapers. So it's another reason why I don't go get a job, you know what I mean? Like, how do you go tell somebody that if you need to run to the bathroom, you need to run to the bathroom? You can't just stop working on the line or something at a factory, you can't just [say] I’ve got to the bathroom. Or, you're working at Wendy's and you’ve got a line through the window all the way around the building- I can't just stop and go to the bathroom, you know what I mean? Like, it's definitely- I wish I could go to work. People don't understand that neither, you know? I’ve got to pay for a hotel and eat every day. Now I go get a job, I’ve got to wait for a week or two just to get paid. Now, what am I going do for my roof to stay? You know what I mean? I have no choice but to do this, you know? I can't afford to take two weeks out just for a paycheck, to wait for a paycheck. I would love to, and people don’t understand this stuff. Or like, you don't have a lot of clothes, you know what I mean? How are you going to go to a job interview looking like a bum, or looking dirty and everything like that? They don't have showers out here for people, and I'm not separating from my wife. She's pregnant, so I'm not going to go to a shelter without her. And she's not the most strongest person anyway. Them girls will eat her up at the shelter. Some of the people that's out here are rough, you know? It’s a rough situation.”

Despite multiple attempts to apply for more assistance from the government, Shawn and his wife Jodie say they don’t qualify for more support.

“We have nothing. You know, I get $180 for Social Security," said Shawn. "What does that do? You know, why am I getting disqualified? Because we're married. That's what they keep on saying, we're married and our household is only me and her. My mom has our daughter, so, you know. And then my wife, she's pregnant. And like, they don't even care. She's got triplets in her. They only consider that one birth, you know what I mean? And we still don't qualify for anything. Why are we getting denied for all this stuff? I have no clue. I have no clue why we keep on getting denied. It's horrible.”

Krupa’s been panhandling for the last year and a half.

“Me and my wife ended up in some hardship," he explained. "She ended up getting hurt at work, and we don't get much income. So this what we have to do for right now. And our apartment ended up having lead in it, and our landlord did nothing about it. We had to move because she's pregnant. And we do this to get a hotel room every night.”

“It's definitely been hard with the COVID and everything," said Jodie. "And it seems like you know, more and more people just they don't want to help because of it. I think they're more scared. Because with everything going on, and then, you know, there's that new COVID coming out and everybody's scared. So it's understandable.”

Jodie is 39 and has Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in her leg. Doctors tell her she might have a seizure disorder connected to it.

“We were down in Springfield for a year and it stinks up here because there's nobody that specializes in CRPS," she said. "So they send me back down to Springfield, which is- We have no transportation. So we're trying to get hooked up with that through MassHealth.”

Jodie was still recovering from an incident she’d experienced earlier in the day.

“I was approached by a guy, you could tell he was on something, and he was just miserable," she told WAMC. "And I walked away from him and he threw his coffee right at me.”

The holiday season has already been challenging for the Krupas.

“Those are the hard days, because nothing's open," said Shawn. "So where do you go? And then Park Square, everybody fights over there, you must hear about the fights that go on here and everything like that. It's rough. It's very, very rough out here. I don't wish it upon anybody.”

For those in need like the Krupas, access to resources is increasingly limited because of the pandemic and resulting economic downturn.

“With the COVID and the numbers going up, we're limited hours at this time," said Karen Ryan, who runs the food services at the Christian Center. Located on the West Side of Pittsfield, the organization offers its clients food, clothing, and referral services.

“We're not having direct services inside the Christian Center," continued Ryan. "Before COVID, basically, we were the homeless shelter during the day. People would leave the shelter and come and stay here throughout the day and have breakfast and a hot cup of coffee, have lunch here. They would be able to shop in our free clothing. We could refer them to DTA or Social Security or whatever services they needed. And a lot of those places are shut down right now. And due to the COVID, I believe Berkshire County Regional Housing is shut down. So I think there's just some barriers of trying to get people services. More of it is on the phone than in person.”

The Berkshire Regional Housing Authority’s downtown Pittsfield office is closed to the public due to the pandemic, with staff only available by phone.

Hundreds go to the Christian Center every week for assistance. At its annual Thanksgiving dinner this year, around 500 people were served.

“Over the fall, it seems that there are people in more need," said Director Betsy Sherman. "I think that with the uncertainty about housing, the uncertainty about the continuation of food, that people get very anxious. To be honest, I think one of the things that that we do as an organization is, we're here. People come because they need to get out of the house, they need to see other people. They need support, they need encouragement. They do need the food, but they also just need to know that somebody cares.”

Ryan says heading into a second pandemic winter, the Christian Center has internalized lessons from the first.

“Our hours and our services are a little different," she said. "But you know, we have stayed open through the pandemic. We are serving food, we have a dining room full of coats, hats, gloves, boots. We are still serving the community- Just in a different way. But I think we're a little more prepared for it this year. We know what it's all about, and we're just trying to keep our staff, our volunteers, our clients safe. But we're here. We're up and running, we haven't shut down.”

Back at Berkshire Crossing, Shawn and Jodie remain at their intersection, holding their sign and waiting in the cold wind.

Along with making enough money to eat and pay for their hotel room, the Krupas are trying to save up to buy their daughter a Christmas gift.

“It's been difficult," said Jodie. "Like, she's a typical 5-year-old that wants everything under the sun and everything's so expensive. But we did do, at Salvation, we did pick a little girl off the tree. Her grandmother helped us with it and everything. And she went and saved some of her chore money and she helped with it. And I think that just showed her that just because we're in a rough situation, it doesn't mean you don't think of others. We made gloves and she made cards for some disabled people. I just want her to remember that if you're in a rough situation, there's always someone else that's a worse one than ours.”

“Do you know people yell at my wife about doing her hair?" said Shawn. "For spending $4 on a box of hair dye, we get criticized for it. Or we'll go to Starbucks and get a sandwich, we get criticized for that. Oh, do you really need that? Why are you at Starbucks? We're getting food, you know what I mean? We're not going to buy a crack rock or a bottle of booze. We're getting food. You know, about a box of hair dye, four dollars. Is that really wrong that I took $4 out of standing here all day long and bought my wife a box of hair dye to make her feel somewhat normal? Because this ain't the normalest thing to do.”

“I've gotten really used to it," said Jodie. "I've had men say not nice things to me, I've had some women who have said not nice things, and I keep on reminding Shawn that we just have to bite our tongue a little bit because we can't get to their level. It’s not fair.”

Jodie says despite the progression of her illness and the struggles she and Shawn go through on a daily basis, she’s found things to look forward to from the holidays.

“I'm here another year with my husband," she told WAMC. "Because this is like- Pretty much, it goes to stage four, and then it shuts everything down. So I just appreciate every day, and the holidays just mean a lot to me because of my kids, my husband. We have a 5-year-old. I just look at her and appreciate that we have another holiday together. That's really about it.”

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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