There has been outcry in Pittsfield, Massachusetts following the closure of an emergency housing shelter set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. ServiceNet, the mental health and human services group running the shelter at the former St. Joseph Central High School, shuttered the operation on July 13th. Subsequently, there have been reports of new encampments for unhoused residents forming in city parks, prompting dismay from the community. WAMC spoke with Mayor Linda Tyer about the shelter’s closure and the city’s Police Advisory and Review Board’s first annual report.
TYER: The St. Joseph's emergency shelter was established at the height of COVID-19 in order to provide enough social distancing for the homeless population. It was always intended to be a temporary shelter. When ServiceNet, who is the operator of the city shelter, came to the point where they had a low census, they made a determination that it was time to transition out of St. Joe's and reopen Barton's Crossing. So that was a decision that ServiceNet made and so St. Joe's is closed and Barton's crossing has reopened.
WAMC: There have been reports of new homeless encampments around the city and a lot of needs from that community following the closure of the shelter. Were those concerns accounted for when the St. Joseph's shelter was closed?
Well based on ServiceNet's understand Standing of their population, they felt it was an appropriate time to to close the temporary emergency shelter and reopen Barton's crossing.
Does the city have any plans in place to address these concerns around the homeless community in the city?
Certainly. We are an active, engaged partner with ServiceNet and other social service agencies. While the city of Pittsfield- So in other words, local government doesn't own and operate a homeless shelter, we do consider ourselves to be a vital stakeholder in creating solutions and participating in problem solving with our community partners.
There are some estimates that as many as 60 people in the city may be homeless and again, news of a possible encampment being formed in the city itself. Are there any efforts specifically towards those groups at this time to address those needs?
Yes. So, we are aware that there are some encampments that have been established in a couple of our parks. We are working very closely with ServiceNet. ServiceNet is conducting on site visits to the encampment, and they are sharing information with the people who are camping there about services that are available to them. Some of the individuals have expressed an interest in obtaining access to these services and others are not so interested. However, it's important to note that ServiceNet is actively engaged with the homeless who have set up camps in one of our parks.
Why do you think there was so much confusion in the community about the closure of the shelter? It's been described as many as abrupt and there's been certainly some outcry about the situation.
I think that it's understandable because people have a great deal of compassion for the homeless. And I think that while we said repeatedly that we were establishing St. Joe's as a temporary emergency shelter, you know, people want to see a more permanent solution, as do I, as do the experts in at ServiceNet. We all understand that we have an emerging problem that needs our attention, and we are all committed to working towards a solution.
Can we expect any initiatives from your administration in the coming city council meeting to address these concerns?
I don't have any initiatives planned at this time. As I said, we are a partner to ServiceNet as they are the experienced professionals and providing the care and comfort that's needed for people who are homeless. Homelessness is a very complex situation and once size does not fit all. So we really rely on the expertise of ServiceNet to provide us with ideas about how to solve this problem. And then it's our job to look for ways to facilitate those solutions.
Are you concerned about the implications of this on the COVID-19 situation in the city with more folks out of housing in Pittsfield?
I'm always concerned about people who don't have housing, whether it's pre-COVID, or current COVID or post-COVID. Homelessness is an entrenched problem that we've got to keep working on. We currently have very low infection rates in Pittsfield, as you know. And so we are confident that we have the spread of COVID under control. And as I mentioned, ServiceNet is in regular contact with the individuals that are outside of the Barton's Crossing shelter so that we will be able to provide them with medical care if it's needed.
I want to turn to the first annual report of Pittsfield police advisory and review board. Some of the chairs comments- chair Ellen Maxon- Some of her comments echoed that of past incarnations of the board, a concern about powerlessness, a concern about responding to situations or policy changes after the fact. I'm interested, you were against a more powerful police oversight committee. When you hear the chair of the current advisory board echo similar concerns of past failed boards- What is your reaction to that?
Okay, so let me say that I was not against the police advisory and review board having power. We are limited in that power by Massachusetts state law. So while I heard the chair expressed concerns about how the board functions, there are certain things that we can modify in order to provide the board with what, what they desire. So, for example, when the chief is in the process of amending or creating a new policy, we agree that we can present it to the board before the policy is enacted finally, by the Chief. That's a modification that we are happy to put in place. But if the board wants the ability to investigate police officers or to administer discipline, that is going to require a change in state law.
What were your other reactions to the report? There was a lot of conversation that went behind the formation of the new board, so I'm interested in what you took away from that as it continues its operations into a new year.
Well, I think that first of all, I am extremely grateful to the members who are willing to serve on the police advisory and review board. They take the work very seriously. I think that it's been one year and they are starting to really understand in greater detail what their abilities are in terms of how to influence policymaking and to influence the chief's decisions around discipline as it relates to administrative investigations or internal affairs investigations. I think that with more time and more experience they're going to get even- We're going to get even better results from this partnership.