Emails obtained by WAMC News through a Freedom Of Information Act Request show tensions between Pittsfield, Massachusetts political leaders as they sought to address the needs of the city’s unhoused population in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
On March 17th, 2020, five days after Mayor Linda Tyer declared a state of emergency in the community of over 40,000, State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier sent the following message to Tyer, Jay Sacchetti of ServiceNet – the company that runs the city’s shelters – and Gina Armstrong, the city’s Director of Public Health:
“I am putting in writing the concerns I have been attempting to express over the last several days: that of immediately addressing the overcrowded conditions at Barton's Crossing. In this pandemic, it is nothing short of a time bomb. Barton’s Crossing is already woefully inadequate in the best of times and does not have the capacity for the number of people experiencing homelessness on any given day. The overcrowded conditions will contribute to a rapid spread of the virus within that population and given that the great majority has complicated health histories, they will rapidly swamp our health system.”
Barton’s Crossing – located at 1307 North Street in Pittsfield – is a ServiceNet operated shelter that offers 16 year-round beds and 20 winter beds.
As the state representative for much of Pittsfield, Farley-Bouvier maintains a close working relationship with Tyer. They’ve appeared at countless public events together, endorsing statewide politicians like Senator Ed Markey and Attorney General Maura Healey on the campaign trail and at ribbon cuttings and other official functions. Farley-Bouvier endorsed Tyer in her 2019 bid for re-election, and Tyer backed Farley-Bouvier in 2016.
CC’d on the email were State Representative Paul Mark and State Senator Adam Hinds, fellow Democrats who also represent Pittsfield, as well as Brad Gordon of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority. Farley-Bouvier wrote that the library, senior center and the Christian Center – which normally offer the unhoused facilities and resources during the day – were all closed due to public health concerns:
“Most are restricted from the shelter during the day. What bathroom are they supposed to use? How do we ask everyone to be especially vigilant about hygiene but restrict bathrooms?
I understand that there is action underway to utilize the old St. Joseph High School. This is an excellent idea. I further understand that it will be for the homeless after they get sick. Why are we waiting in getting some distance and services to the individuals before they get sick? I truly believe that it is imperative to address this issue in the fastest possible time frame, especially since there is no where for them to go during the day.”
The message prompted reactions from Mayor Tyer’s staff.
Director of Administrative Services Roberta McCulloch-Dews responded with the following:
“So she is proposing setting up St. Joe’s as a shelter vs. a quarantine. Well, that will definitely need resources and manpower. Can we even use the building as a shelter and quarantine at the same time?”
Executive Assistant Catherine Van Bramer wrote:
“She is taking over our plans.”
Armstrong confirmed to Farley-Bouvier that same day that action was indeed underway to “develop plans for a shelter/quarantine center operation at St. Joe’s.”
On March 18th, Tyer emailed the city’s coronavirus team to clarify her vision for how the former high school would be utilized:
“Please keep your focus on the use of St. Joe’s narrow. For the time being, our purpose is to make St. Joe’s a place for isolation and quarantine for the homeless. This is not the same as a homeless shelter.”
The next day, Farley-Bouvier again emailed Tyer, Armstrong, Sacchetti, Hinds, Gordon and Mark, adding Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn and Fire Chief Tom Sammons:
“I am circling back to the issue of the critical need of expanding our emergency homeless shelter to address the overcrowding. I'll state it again that we are putting in harms [sic] way each and every member of our entire community if we do not address this issue as we are letting conditions remain that will quickly fill our hospital.
It is my understanding that St Joseph's High School will available only for those that test positive and the current, not yet sick, homeless individuals will not be housed there.
I disagree with this decision.
While I think it is a good idea to have such a facility for recovery, finding a space for the current homeless community should be addressed first. The approach currently outlined is akin to pulling drowning folks out of the river as opposed to going upstream to keep (at least some of them) them from falling in to begin with.
I have two main points here:
1. We need to make the expansion of our emergency shelter an immediate public health priority.
2. Solving this critical issue needs to be handled through Pittsfield Command and General Staff as opposed to leaving it to the provider agency.
If the decision is that the shelter expansion has to happen at another site, it needs to be at the direction and with the support of Pittsfield Command. This includes identifying and readying the building. If help is needed in identifying a building, sign me up for the team. If there is a need for volunteers to clean out rooms or do other readying projects, I will find them. If you made it a priority it could be executed in 48 hours.”
Farley-Bouvier writes that she is happy to help the city’s communications with the Diocese of Springfield concerning use of the former high school, and that she, Mark and Hinds had sought $200,000 in state funding to help the endeavor.
This prompted Armstrong to reach out to Tyer, saying in an email that she told Sacchetti and Farley-Bouvier to look at the First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street for a possible expansion for unhoused shelter, as ServiceNet already was working on a proposal for the site. She ends by saying of Farley-Bouvier:
“I don’t understand why she feels that the city needs to lead with this option when some ground work has already been done through their future relocation plan.”
“Tricia can disagree all she wants but it's simple. The City of Pittsfield will not be operating a homeless shelter at any time in any location. We do not have the capacity in terms of funding, facilities, or employees to operate a homeless shelter. It is 100% the responsibility of the providers. We will expedite any city service that's needed to assist the providers [in] expanding their shelters at their chosen locations.
In addition, Tricia does not have the authority to assign us tasks or to give us directives. [I] am deciding if I want to send a response to her email.”
The next day, Tyer prepared that response – but not after running it by McCulloch-Dews and Van Bramer, saying:
“I appreciate your feedback before I say something I regret.”
The email that went to Farley-Bouvier and the city’s senior staff is a seven-point list of clarifications.
To begin with, she addresses the use of the former St. Joseph High School building.
“At no time, in any conversation, was using St. Joe’s as a homeless shelter considered by me, my Command and General Staff, or by the Coronavirus Preparedness Team. People outside of that circle have created the wrong perception that St. Joe’s will be a homeless shelter.”
Tyer says the city is continuing to work on the narrow purpose of making the building a place for the unhoused with COVID-19 to isolate and quarantine. She continues:
“It is 100% NOT the responsibility of Command and General Staff to solve the problem of overcrowding in the homeless shelters. It is the responsibility of the various community agencies that provide sheltering. The role of the city’s public health officials is to alert community partners of conditions that are a threat to public health and to recommend control measures. We have done that repeatedly. We will not be taking on the responsibility of finding new locations.”
The mayor commits the city to working with community partners to ease regulations that might restrict the expansion of sheltering services during the pandemic, and asks that any funds raised for that purpose by the state delegation go to community partners, not Pittsfield. She thanks Farley-Bouvier for her advocacy around sheltering the unhoused, and encourages her to work with community partners on the issue as opposed to the city.
“Finally, by way of comparison, the city will not be operating day care centers or food pantries. We rely greatly, and are grateful for, our community partners for these services. The city is committed to supporting their efforts for resources and responsibilities that fall within the scope of municipal government.”
The message to Farley-Bouvier was well-received by other senior city leaders. Former superintendent of schools Jason McCandless responded with “BLESS YOU,” while Chief Wynn said “Nice job Boss! Strong message. Thank you for keeping us on task.” Tyer thanked Wynn, saying “I needed to get that off my chest. Done and Done.”
For her part, Farley-Bouvier responded directly to the mayor:
“That is the first time that there has been clarity. I expected your call on Sunday and was hesitant to reach back out because I could only conclude you had a more pressing matter.”
She says Tyer missed a crucial element of her efforts around the unhoused:
“Expanding homeless capacity is about saving lives in Pittsfield. I am talking about the general public not just those experiencing homelessness. In all our mitigation efforts of closing schools and closing restaurants, if we don't do this, we are indeed making a conscience [sic] decision to allow our hospital to fill up when we could have taken action to mitigate it.”
Farley-Bouvier says she absolutely disagrees with Tyer that the city is not responsible for the emergency shelter issue:
“You all are definitely responsible because mitigation of the spread is what all this is about. And we know that ServiceNet is in no way equipped to getting a new shelter set up. Yes, they are able [to] staff it when it is set up. We are not asking the city to run it. We need a building identified and coordination of setting it up. We could use the volunteers that Berkshire United Way is gathering.”
“Know that I will not stand down. I will put pressure on this with every tool I have at my disposal at both the local and the state level.”
Farley-Bouvier closes the message by saying that “the community will be much better served if we are working together.”
In time, Tyer’s position on the former St. Joseph High School Building changed.
On March 27th, the limits of Pittsfield’s current sheltering for the unhoused during the pandemic became clear in an email from Armstrong to Fire Chief Sammons:
“There is someone from Barton’s Crossing that was tested today for COVID19 and should be in isolation while results are pending. We know that full adherence to isolation requirements are challenging in a homeless shelter so alternative housing is an urgent need.”
The same day, Tyer emailed her senior staff after the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency began use of the Hilton Garden Inn in Pittsfield as a place to isolate the unhoused with COVID-19:
“LIGHT BULB MOMENT . . . if the Hilton is being used for isolation and quarantine then we can shift the use of St. Joe's for expanding sheltering!!!”
A March 31st email to the Pittsfield city council from Tyer shows the evolution of her thinking about the former high school building’s use:
“We immediately began working with ServiceNet and we are making steady progress with setting up St. Joe as a temporary homeless shelter. There are a lot of details and logistics required to make this happen. ServiceNet is leading this effort and we are supporting them in every way. In my conversation with the Springfield Diocese, it was reiterated to me that St. Joe’s is available for this purpose only during the COVID-19 crisis.”
By April, the former high school opened as a temporary shelter in line with Farley-Bouvier’s original vision.
A year after the emails, WAMC asked Tyer and Farley-Bouvier for comment in recent days.
Tyer described the situation as “leadership in full color.”
“We both felt very strongly about the work that we were doing in the midst of the very early crisis management of COVID-19," she told WAMC. "And I think that we both offered something of value to our community in terms of the work we were trying to accomplish around St. Joe’s.”
“Mayor Tyer was exactly the right person at the right time to lead us through the pandemic," said Farley-Bouvier - who says she is staunchly behind Tyer. “In the heat of those first two weeks of the pandemic when there was so much going on, I had a strong opinion about what should happen with – I strongly advocated for the homeless and those living at Barton’s Crossing, and was working to help solve those problems.”
WAMC News intern Jeongyoon Han contributed to this story.