A plan to remove unhoused residents living in city parks is set to go into effect in Pittsfield, Massachusetts Tuesday.
Pittsfield’s unhoused population has been thrust into the limelight in 2020 amid much-criticized efforts on the part of the city to provide shelter for the dozens without permanent residences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s parks commission decided on the plan to remove the dozen or so residents of Springside Park earlier this month.
“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," said Pittsfield Parks and Open Space program manager James McGrath. "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 plan was met with skepticism by some municipal leaders, who voiced concerns about how it would be implemented.
“My first thought went to, how are we enforcing this evacuation order?" said City Councilor Helen Moon. "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.”
Moon represents Ward 1, where Springside Park is located.
“I read the term ‘compassionately tolerate’ and I don't really know what, I'm not really sure what that's supposed to mean," she said. "You know, 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.”
Moon told WAMC that she had heard reports of up to 100 unhoused people living in the Pittsfield area
McGrath told WAMC that the city doesn’t intend to carry out the removal with force.
“But at the end of the day, we recognize that, you know, some of these individuals may be unwilling to leave, at which time other resources may need to be brought in to resolve the situation,” he admitted.
City officials did not respond to request for comment on updates to the plan by airtime Monday. Those living in Springside Park – already wary of city shelters and satisfied with their accommodations – are bracing for Tuesday.
“They’re so concerned, they say, about winter, and we have prepared all summer for that," said Michele Mathews, who has been living in the park. “My friend across the way there, his tent is not even a tent anymore. He worked so hard on it, built a foundation for it. The inside is amazing. He’s the one who built the temporary little kitchen thing here. And when I tell you that we have put so much work and heart into just trying to just get through this, you understand? We just want to exist until something does comes for us.”
She says she and the other members of her encampment are safer from COVID and the dangers of shelter life where they are now.
“But now, because it’s winter, they want to rip us out of here – three disabled people and a vet, who, by the way, was so eager to serve his country, but what is his country doing for him now?” she asked.
Mathews says they haven’t heard anything from Pittsfield about how Tuesday’s removal is supposed to play out.
“If they come here like, ‘you guys gotta go,’ I think unless they have something better than what we have, I’m obviously going to fight," she told WAMC. "I have nowhere else to go, Josh. I have nowhere else to go.”
A survivor of sexual assault, Mathews says she had a man crawl into her bed in a city shelter and doesn’t want to return. With questions over enforcement of the removal remaining, she fears the Pittsfield Police from past encounters.
“I am the city of Pittsfield," said Mathews. "I am the city. We are the city. We do pay taxes. We’re not slouches, we’re not out here causing problems. We’re trying to make things better. We’re the ones cleaning up the mess other people left. Nobody else.”