The Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council has voted to reestablish a revamped homeless committee after a decades-long absence.
In the spring of 2017, a Pittsfielder brought to city hall a petition to reinstate a long dormant committee.
“We named this the homeless prevention committee — or, we want to name it the homeless prevention committee. Well, you know what? You can’t prevent what we already have: homeless. But we can prevent future homeless," said Ed Carmel, speaking before the council Tuesday. His call to action was sponsored by Councilors Melissa Mazzeo and Helen Moon, and it was brought to a vote before the full council this week. While the city established a Committee for the Homeless in 1989, it faded into nonexistence at some point in the 1990s.
“The people that I have talked to — that I had an issue to talk to in this city — we need to put a committee together, that’s your guys’ jobs," Carmel continued. "To vote on this tonight, and vote this 11 to nothing to put a committee together that it goes to the honorable Mrs. Tyer to pass it. So life or death, this needs to be passed.”
Carmel was joined by other community activists, who say there’s a desperate need for greater focus on city residents who seek shelter on a regular basis.
“My first attempt at helping somebody when I moved to Pittsfield, I called the emergency housing number, only to learn that there is no emergency housing — that there was a four-month waiting list," said Alisa Costa. She's the director of Working Cities Pittsfield, an offshoot of the Working Cities Challenge launched by the by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 2013. The group works with city residents to a goal of “all people in Pittsfield [experiencing] a just, thriving and safe community.” In 2016, WCP was awarded a multi-year grant of almost half a million dollars to “mitigate poverty” in the city. The group says the funds come from a combination of state and private sources.
“Our homeless population are our neighbors, and they deserve help with their complex needs," Costa said. "So a committee with the prominent voices of people with lived experiences — and I can’t stress that enough — partnered with social service agencies and government, they can do a better job at coordinating services. Because honestly, if I have to make that call again, we’re not doing our jobs.”
Another community advocate offered a sketch of how pervasive homelessness has become in Pittsfield, a city of around 43,000 — and how scant the resources to combat it are.
“We have a family of five. We have four people that are camping out in the commons. We have two people who are sleeping in their cars. We have — and this is just people that come into my office in the last two weeks — one person that’s sleeping in the woods and three people who are living in abandoned houses," said Debbie Vail, assistant director of Pittsfield’s Christian Center. “Tonight, I got home late from work because I had to take a man to where he’s camping out behind — I shouldn’t even tell you where it is, but it’s on Dalton Avenue — I had to take him there and gave him a tent in the rain and that’s all I could do for him, and that breaks my heart. And that happens a lot.”
The stipulations in the report that emerged from the city council’s ordinance and rules committee call for the new homeless committee to have 15 members, including a member of the council, a representative of the homeless community, a mental health professional, a veterans services worker, a public safety official, and someone from the Pittsfield Public School System.
The motion to accept the report passed the full council unanimously.
The motion to accept the report passed the full council unanimously. Mayor Linda Tyer tells WAMC she signed the motion into law “happily and willing.”
“This is an important issue that is emerging to a much greater degree than we have seen in past years," Tyer said. "So in addition to signing the order, I’ve asked the members of the city council to send me any recommendations they may have for who might serve on the homeless prevention committee.”
She added city hall is exploring immediate options to combat homelessness in Pittsfield, but said none had been identified yet.
Once Tyer presents her appointees, they will have to be approved by the city council before the committee begins its operations.