Emails obtained by WAMC News using the Freedom of Information Act show how the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts developed a strategy to remove unhoused people from public parks in fall 2020 – and why the unfinished plan was scrapped just before it was set to go into effect.
The chaos of 2020 caused some of Pittsfield’s unhoused population to choose to live in homemade encampments in city parks rather than risk contracting COVID-19 in city shelters. Michele Mathews, a city resident living rough in Pittsfield, says the shelters posed other threats as well:
“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.”
Paul, another unhoused resident, also spent time in a Pittsfield shelter before opting for the outdoors.
“It was horrible there," he 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.”
Discussion over the most prominent of those encampments – in the city’s largest park, Springside, with as many as 60 residents at the peak in the summer – led to debate among city leaders over how Pittsfield would manage the situation.
After months of deliberation, Pittsfield took action in the fall.
In mid-November, the city’s Parks Commission issued the following statement:
“With cold weather and winter conditions fast approaching it is no longer safe to continue to allow sheltering in city parks. For the safety and well-being of those who have used city parks to shelter, effective Dec. 1, all park rules will be enforced including parks being closed from dusk till dawn.”
The commission said the city’s emergency shelter in the former St. Joseph High School building on Maplewood Avenue could house those living in the parks, and that representatives of Pittsfield’s service provider ServiceNet would assist those in the parks with moving into the shelter.
The statement continues:
“After Dec. 1, all items remaining in city parks will be removed. The park rules are attached and will be posted to all city parks. We will also continue to use the bulletin board that has been installed alongside Springside Avenue to post information about housing, food, and public health services.”
The policy prompted criticism from some city leaders like City Councilor Helen Moon, who represents Ward 1 and Springside Park.
“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 move came days after Park, Open Space, and Natural Resource Program Manager James McGrath contacted Parks Commission chair Anthony DeMartino on November 13th in an email titled “Homeless Encampments at Springside.”
He notes that new campsites have cropped up at the park, and asks “Do we tell these new campers they need to vacate the park? We have been very compassionate and tolerant to date, but for how much longer?”
He says that with the leaves falling, “All of these sites are more visible now than ever” and that the city is “seeing more chatter from the neighbors about the issue.”
McGrath then lays out the following plan to DeMartino:
“If we are to order that all who are sheltering at the park to vacate, this would seem to best coming from the Parks Commission. What are your thoughts? If this is to be become an item for the agenda on Tuesday, Do you envision any pushback from commissioners? If so, how do we handle that? We’d need to modify the agenda today to add this as an item.”
By November 16th, city emails suggest that Mayor Linda Tier gave the go-ahead for the plan to vacate the parks. Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer emails McGrath the following:
“Tha Mayor is on board with plan to put safety first & have parks Commission formally act to end compassionate tolerance.”
The Parks Commission met the following day before issuing its statement on the re-enforcement of park rules.
On November 30th, just a day before the Parks Commission decision was set to go into effect, an email exchange between city officials shows how unprepared Pittsfield was to enact it. A request for comment from WAMC on the city’s plans for December 1st prompted McGrath to say that he wasn’t comfortable going on the record, given that the city had been unable to communicate with Police Chief Michael Wynn about his department’s role in the enforcement of park rules.
In response, Ruffer identified that city code made the police the responsible party for such enforcement, and that she was “frustrated with the lack of guidance from PPD” and said that she was hopeful that Director of Administrative Services Roberta McCulloch-Dews could “help get the guidance the Chief had promised to provide.”
Ruffer, who in the email bristles at WAMC’s use of the phrase “park evacuation plan,” calling it “deceptive,” put forward her own language to clarify the parks commission’s move:
“On November 15th, the Parks Commission acted to end its August/July?? waiver of some park rules and in particular the prohibition of overnight use of City parks. As a result, all park rules will be enforced as of December 1st.”
Those rules would require the city’s unhoused residents to vacate public parks at night – amounting to a forced evacuation from their primary residences in the encampments.
With only hours until the proposed enforcement of said rules, Ruffer’s email underscores how down-to-the-minute Pittsfield’s planning was:
“I feel very strongly about no proactive action being taken tomorrow, particularly given that we know there are individuals (Joe Durwin, etc) planning to be at the park to 'record' and possibly protest/obstruct any action.”
WAMC News broke the news on November 23rd that Durwin, a former parks commissioner, resigned from the body in part due to its decision to re-enforce park rules and in part due to longstanding frustrations.
This was registered on November 24th by McGrath in an email that acknowledges Durwin’s plan to resign and an indication that he would be in the parks to film the city’s actions.
He also expresses concerns about the coming December 1st deadline, hoping that the city “can engage in some more conversation around this date and how we’ll handle things, with the individuals and from a PR perspective.”
Durwin’s issues with the parks commission are noted as early as November 19th, with chair DeMartino emailing Mayor Tyer with his concerns about the now-resigned commissioner:
“I know that you are aware of Commissioner Joe Durwin’s social media posts expressing his displeasure with Commission decisions and actions, especially when they don’t jive with his or the Springside Park Conservancy’s.”
He includes a communication with Ruffer where she says she consulted the city’s Human Resources Director to see if Durwin’s behavior was at odds with the city’s workplace conduct policy:
“He needs to consult with city legal counsel as to applicability of the City’s Social Media Creation and Content Policy. He does feel that if appointees are not subject to the current policy, it is in the City’s best interest to update this policy to be inclusive of appointees, though this will take some time. I hope this is helpful.”
DeMartino asks for Tyer’s guidance, saying “If he is indeed unhappy regarding his involvement with us on the Commission, then maybe he needs to consider stepping away. I have always believed that opposing views and perspectives are necessary on any Board or Commission. Debate leads to education and compromise for the best solution possible. That said, when a decision or action by a Board / Commission does not agree with one’s own, it should be accepted. If additional debate or facts are necessary, then there are proper channels.”
“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, 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.”
The phrase “compassionate tolerance” – which Pittsfield regularly invoked in public and private discussion of its policies around the unhoused – stood out to City Councilor Moon.
"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,” she said.
Also on November 30th, Fire Chief Tom Sammons offers a report to his staff on the current situation inside Springside Park, saying that three camps – all with fire pits – remain and that “most of the people have moved on.” He notes that “If the Fire Department responds to a fire at Springside Park we are to treat it like any other outside fire,” but that a new policy would have the department notify McGrath “in an email that we responded to the park for a fire.”
On December 1st, as per Ruffer’s email the day before, there was no police-enforced removal of the park encampments at Springside. Pittsfield offered WAMC News a statement that “the city’s focus remains on working with service providers to assist the unsheltered individuals who are in the park to alternate dwellings.” The campsites remain in place weeks later with a fluctuating population of around a dozen residents. Citywide, around 70 unhoused people are living rough in Pittsfield in early 2021.
Mathews, of the Springside encampment, says she’s still living in the park, though she stayed at a relative’s house recently during a brutal cold snap. She says ServiceNet still hasn’t directly communicated with her and her husband, who are both over 50 and living with disabilities – choosing to discuss their situation with the pastor of their church instead.
ServiceNet tells WAMC that its efforts are currently focused on managing its shelters, housing programs and existing case management, and that it is accepting referrals from community groups that work with the unhoused.
“The plan for ServiceNet was to have me pay half a month and them half a month and then it would be six months," said Mathews. "But after six months, what would happen? I would potentially be right back in the same place.”
Mathews says there’s potentially a plan in place for the encampment to move to a new space in Cummington – a rural community east of Pittsfield. For now, she and the park community say they feel abandoned. The memories of politicians taking interest in their plight – like former Congressman Joe Kennedy III, who appeared at Springside during his 2020 Senate bid – feel increasingly distant.
“All the people that came by this summer for the little publicity stunt – the senator and whoever else showed up for publicity – have not come back," Mathews told WAMC. "Not once.”
The suspense around the return to enforced park rules in early December has given way to hopelessness.
“I don’t see anything good happening anytime soon for homeless people, I just don't," she said. "I see them going into abandoned buildings. They’re in all three parks, the cemetery – it’s bad. It’s bad out here.”
WAMC News intern Jeongyoon Han contributed to this story.