Americans are living longer. For people already on the fringes, that poses a variety of new challenges. In the second part of our special series on aging, we meet a community of unhoused people living in a public park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. WAMC Berkshire Bureau Chief Josh Landes got to know the residents of an encampment who have become the focal point of a local debate over how to provide for the neediest during the COVID-19 pandemic – and how they think about their lives as they age.
Just north of downtown Pittsfield sits Springside Park. The land is hilly, wooded and crisscrossed with hiking trails sprawling between a middle school, country club and residential neighborhoods. Springside is home to a baseball field, an arboretum, a 19th century Italianate mansion and several encampments occupied by around a dozen city residents.
“When I was in jail, I had a dream of Springside Park up back where, even when I was kid, the zoo that was up there," said Michele Mathews. "And in the dream I saw cages. There were like, very, very little left of the cage, you know, just little remnants. But it stuck with me. And it was like God was talking to me, and he put it on my heart. And the whole entire time I thought about this, the whole entire time I was jail – so weird, true story – about, geez, we could do a bird of prey refuge because owls and hawks don't usually live together. But there are at least three owls here and two hawks. And that's pretty special.”
Michele is one of the Pittsfielders who calls the park home.
“When I had the dream, I thought God was telling me, you know, to do that, to do the bird thing and to rebuild the cages," she continued. "But now I think it was metaphorical. Like we're the broken cages. We are the broken cages. We’re the remnants of what's left of a broken society. It's breaking down every day.”
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, Springside was born when former mayor Kelton Miller and his wife Eva first donated 10 acres of land to the city to establish a park in 1910. Over a century later, it’s grown to 240. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some unhoused Pittsfield residents like Michele have opted to make do in the woods of Springside rather than brave city-provided emergency shelter. She had a terrible time at the former St. Joseph High School building downtown.
“The staff, albeit really nice people, some of them were sicker than us," she told WAMC. "Some of them approached females, you know, for money. And I found a man in my bed. And my husband, 25 years legally married, couldn't even sleep on the same side of the building as me, but other men could in the same corridor as us. There are six women to the room and even if they're 6 feet apart, even if they say they have to have a mask on, let's face it, not everybody can sleep and keep a mask on. And I don't think everybody will, because you're talking about people who are using still, who don't have a clear head and aren't really thinking about others at this point. Because addiction makes- It's a disease that makes you very selfish and self-centered. You only think about you and what, you know, what will be good for you. I had too many things stolen. Yeah, and there was a man [who] exposed himself. And I've talked about that before. I say all this because when I start thinking about it, I start getting anxiety. Really bad. You see me over here, like, flinch. OK, so even thinking about having to be in a situation where my husband can't protect me, they can't protect me.”
Michele is no stranger to living rough.
“My mother told me if I didn't like her way, which I said she was very abusive, I could leave. And I did. And I was 15. And that was like, really stupid when I look back now. But back then, you know, even back then, it was right around the time of Jeffrey Dahmer and all that that I ventured out at 15, went across country twice, thumbing," she said. "I mean, you know- So I had a really great, we’ll say, education in the streets.”
At 54, it’s not as easy as it once was.
“I have [rheumatoid arthritis], which means my bones are deteriorating," said Michele. "On top of that I have neuropathy. So there's these… when I can't even stand, because the nerves in my legs. Also, I am being tested for cancer. I lost a lot of weight this summer, and I've developed some bones- I mean, some bumps on my bones that I can’t explain. So because of COVID it's been extremely hard to get, you know, treated for those things. You have to have testing and the imaging, all kinds of things that have really just been hindered because of COVID. I have PTSD, I have ADD, which, obviously, is why I keep- Can’t pay attention to what you're saying, but, I'm sorry. But the PTSD is, you know, cause by an abusive upbringing, and it kicked off back in 2010 when the police came into our home. They took me out of my home with, you know, my body exposed. It was a huge issue for me. It was- It went deeper than that and I don't really want to talk about it, but my husband was screaming ‘Cover her up,’ you know. It just was a huge issue for me.”
“My wife, she has a lot of medical issues. And her narcolepsy is a strong thing that, over the past year, she's fallen in places, lost things," said Michele’s husband Gregory Mathews.
He’s 55, and he’s lived in Berkshire County for 25 years. Like Michele, he doesn’t trust Pittsfield’s emergency shelters, especially after his wife found a man in her bed at St. Joe’s.
“She's getting older, we don't need to be put in a space where, you know, I can't see her, if she’s all right," he told WAMC. "And when this incident happened, it was the final straw.”
With Michele getting pneumonia twice in the past year and suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Gregory doesn’t want to risk catching COVID in a shelter. He’s got his own medical issues as well.
“I have neuropathy on my left side, so I can't move my leg as much," said Gregory. "So I'm taking medication. I just got prescribed Lyrica, you know. I have two discs in my back and I have a, I have my knee problems and stuff like that. I'm seeing a lot of doctors, I'm in the pain clinic.”
Gregory and Michele left the shelter and found their way to the park this spring.
“We tried to get residence, you know, and they want first and last and security," Gregory told WAMC. "But they also want you to prove that you have a bank account, you know, and that's- I mean, why does this has to be? I understand that the law, want to protect themselves. But every time I went to one to see about having a place to live for me and my wife, they gave me the look that they didn't, they wasn't going to do anything. They weren't going to help us. They wasn't an open a door and give us apartment, even if it was $700 a month. You know? Sure, I would love to have a place like that. But my wife, she's, she's the person that's more important to me, you know what I mean? And her health is more important to me than my own.”
Those health concerns, normal for any aging person, are greatly amplified for the unhoused.
“I mean, you’re looking at a lot of the same things that everyone shares, which is the malnutrition, with the weather right now we’ve got the frostbite, the hypothermia," said Jean-Marie Laurin, the Berkshire County coordination for Western Mass Recovery Learning Community, an advocacy and peer support organization for people affected by issues like trauma, homelessness, problems with substances and more.
“We get wounds, especially on the feet, because everybody’s getting wet and they’re walking around without proper shoes, or shoes that get soaked," she told WAMC. "And then you’re looking at – as you age, there are just things that happen to our body. We develop diabetes, we develop heart problems and blood pressure problems, and a lot of folks that are in these situations just don’t access regular medical care, and that kind of stuff gets out of control.”
In Pittsfield, Jean-Marie says she’s encountered many examples of this dynamic.
“Where they’re not taking care of it properly, they’re not having proper nutrition, they’re not clothed properly so they have sores," she said. "They don’t have access to their medications for whatever reason.”
Beyond that, most unhoused people don’t have the transportation they need to get to the resources they require.
“Unless we have community advocates that drive these people to these places, they can’t access the healthcare that’s available,” said Jean-Marie.
Michele and Gregory live in an encampment set in a gully along a stream in Springside. The compound is comprised of a series of tents, replete with its own designated bathroom tent, wooden kitchenette, central fire pit and guest tent for visitors.
“I've never been homeless before," said Dave Rossi, another member of the tribe. "And again, I've always paid my taxes, I've always, I've had my own business. I've been self-employed for, for, since I've been 22 and I started several businesses, built them up, sold them. Bought houses that were derelict and broken down, fixed them up. And that's, that's what I did my whole life. And as a result of, of certain issues, and from childhood and some post-traumatic stress disorder that was triggered, it kind of drove me in March to become homeless. Which I think was essential because if you want to heal yourself, you really have to, you know, bite the bullet, you got to really get the grindstone and it's going to be painful and whatnot, you know?”
Like Michele, Dave – an artist and a painter who creates jewelry from found objects – is 54.
“I've had so much time to reflect since I've been homeless in March," he told WAMC. "And there’s so many things that have happened. I've had broken ribs, four broken ribs, eight fractures, again, broke them again, and back injuries and it's just been one thing after another living in the woods. But you know what, after all of this time, this is what I really want to do. So, this is what I've always wanted to do. Honestly, this has been pretty much a lifelong dream ever since I was a small child, even at 6 and 7. I remember fantasizing about taking a canoe up to Canada and building a cabin up there, like, you know. And it just seems like that I'm actually where I need to be right now. So again, healing emotionally, physically, spiritually. So right now, this has been the best thing for me. Being in a shelter is just horrendous.”
The youngest member of the camp is Paul, 26. He came to Pittsfield from Maine about a year ago, and ended up in the Barton’s Crossing homeless shelter.
“It was horrible there," Paul told WAMC. "The place was dirty. The people were even dirtier. Drugs are rampant there. They're, you know, having an OD every day or every other day. Someone's always drunk up there. And then the St. Joe's thing comes around – just as worse. Ten times worse, actually, because there was no hot water or any way to wash our clothes. You know, it was pretty bad.”
He joined up with Gregory, Michele, and Dave this spring.
“I suffer from PTSD and bipolar," said Paul. "So it's kind of hard for me to want to talk to people or want to get to know people, so. But these people understood that and they took me in, like I said.”
Debate has raged in Pittsfield over how to deal with the issue of its unhoused residents throughout 2020. On the day he spoke to WAMC, Paul and his campmates were anxiously waiting to see if the city would enforce a November decision by the Parks Commission to move everyone living in the parks to shelters on December 1st.
“I don't think I could ever live in society after this, being as they ridicule us homeless people for not doing a damn thing," said Paul. "Pardon my language. But it's just not doing anything wrong out here, just trying to survive, you know? And these people want to rip us out of our home.”
The deadline came and went without any move to dislodge the little family in the woods that day. Asked for comment on the park plan, city hall said that “the city’s focus remains on working with service providers to assist the unsheltered individuals who are in the park to alternate dwellings.”
Gregory and Michele are parents. They lost a daughter to a drug overdose a few years back.
“Well, first of all, I have children, many of them," Michele told WAMC. "And you can imagine how it makes me feel right now, or- Because I feel like how, how it might affect them, you understand, me being here and all this. That's one of one of my, my issues. I won't say I worry about it, because I have a great big God who told me not to. So I don't. I do think about it. I am, you know, continuously concerned with it.”
Dave is also a parent, and says his four kids are back in Ireland, where he lived for the past 25 years before coming to the states in 2019 to seek medical treatment.
“What I feel being in the woods has shown me is that I have new directions in my life," he said. "I have new directions. I need to heal myself and I need to pursue some of the dreams and some of the things that I've always wanted to do that I've been neglecting because of, we’ll say society, or family or their expectations of me. So I feel what I've done is kind of strip that all down. Talk about a midlife crisis- Well, maybe everyone should have one. I highly recommend it. It's not easy. It's quite emotional. But you know, it's healing, and I think that it's going to be good for all of my children, and for myself, you know? If I had stuck in the routine I was in before, nobody would have benefited like, you know, so.”
Living with a group of fellow unhoused people 30 years his senior, Paul was asked where he sees himself at their age.
“Hopefully in my own, like, hopefully like a log cabin or something out in the wilderness somewhere, living off the land," he said. "Trees everywhere, a little pond over to the side or something I could fish from or whatever. Raise fish, whatever. I can hunt, I can live off the live off the land, basically. That's what I want, to live off the grid, live off the land to survive. Because that's just the kind of person I am, being as I do not want to be in society. I can't take it. I can't stand it. And it's just so stupid now, you know? Just, I'm a woodsy person, so I'd stay in the woods.”
Gregory says he’s a substance abuse counselor, and sees himself getting back into the profession in the future.
“I imagine life having a place to live and enjoy my life, and doing some work for the city, helping those who have addiction problems," he told WAMC." I have a few friends of mine who own who owns an Alternative Living Center that is on First Street. You know, I know the gentleman that runs that. You know, I know quite a few people here that have that are willing to help me get back into my career, you know, of helping people with addictions and living.”
He says his mother worked in politics in Atlanta, where he was raised, and his father was a state trooper and worked for CTTransit in Connecticut.
“I think my life is grown off of theirs. From the experience they gave me. The things they showed me, you know- How to respect others, how not to look at people and [be] judgmental, you know what I mean? And going to church and all those things, man. So, I mean, I don't know what my life would be in five years. I can't predict that. But I will tell you this, that I know my God is good, and that, by that time I will be settled. Even if not before. It's hard, though. It's hard to say where I'll be in five years. I know I hope and pray that I'll be alive. No telling how this world is acting, you know? So, but let's just say, for the sake of it, good," laughed Gregory. "It’ll be good, trust me.”
It’s harder for Michele to imagine what life will look like even in the short term.
“Honestly, I, I don't- I'm not looking down the road right now, because of the RA. You understand? I'm only looking at today," she told WAMC. "I'm looking at today. I'm learning from yesterday, and I'm trying to have a better tomorrow because of what I'm doing today. But I, I don't- I don't really think about the future. Because if I did, I would be very sad all the time. So I don't. I stay in today. And if you can't- I mean, anybody can say, December, there's no snow? No, God did that for me. I asked my father and he did this. So even at 54, I've been through, like I said, a huge amount of education in the streets. And that helped me a lot. But every day is a growing thing here like, you know, trial and error. Like the first time it rained here, we had no idea, me and my husband, about things, and we were out there, we had no tarps, fighting with the tarps, fighting with each other. So you know, I mean, it's a learning experience each and every day. And each and every day, I'm grateful.”
Like Paul, she dreams of a home all to her own.
“I want my own land, obviously. I've always said it," said Michele. "My own land, and end up in a house so I can, you know, finish out my time somewhere safe, where it's mine, where nobody can ever kick me out again. You know?”