The mayor of Pittsfield, Massachusetts says the city plans to reopen the former St. Joseph’s High School to shelter its unhoused population this winter. The building was opened as a temporary shelter in April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was outcry when it was closed by the city’s human services provider, ServiceNet, in July. Conversation about the unhoused continues in Pittsfield – especially following a suicide in a city park last month. WAMC spoke with Mayor Linda Tyer about how the plan for shelter during the cold months came together.
TYER: I understand that the public was confused about the closure of St. Joe's. And it certainly created a lot of community conversation. However, it was really clear to us that ServiceNet as the provider had made a decision that it was time to close St. Joseph's for the winter, which is the standard operating practice of the providers. And so that was an expected outcome. And while it created a lot of community concern, it is part of our standard decisions and operations of the homeless shelter. So while the closure was somewhat controversial, it didn't, certainly did not dissuade us from keeping St. Joe's in the mix for how to provide winter sheltering for this coming year.
WAMC: There's been sort of a moving target on how many unhoused folks the city needs to provide for this coming season. At this point, do you have a sense of how many people will be housed at St. Joe's?
We do. And it's based upon the work that ServiceNet has been doing in the community for a very long time, and based upon what they are seeing in the community now. So they're anticipating that they will need about 50 beds for this year's winter shelter.
As far as ongoing COVID concerns, are you in discussion with ServiceNet about what kind of measures will be taken to protect that population this coming season?
Thank you for asking that question about COVID-19, because that is really the driving force behind the decision to use St. Joe's. Because we are still operating in a COVID-19 environment, which comes with many regulations around congregate living. St. Joseph's provides the needed space to allow for people to shelter and have enough space so that they can be protected from the spread of COVID-19. And certainly there will be other elements in place, just like we would expect, you know, wearing face masks, washing your hands, keeping your distance.
There's been a lot of criticism of the city's ongoing relationship with ServiceNet throughout this crisis. I'm interested, given some of the criticism you've gotten from city councilors and other folks in the community, what's your current assessment of how the city works with ServiceNet?
Well, we've always had a productive working relationship with ServiceNet. So- And I understand that the criticism comes from the community in terms of what has happened over the last few months. But we have always had a good working relationship with ServiceNet. Homeless encampments have been a part of our landscape here in the city of Pittsfield for quite some time, and ServiceNet has always sent caseworkers into those encampments to ensure that people that are there have everything that they need. So we continued that practice at Springside. Park and the other places where we knew there were encampments. The operations at St. Joe's for this coming winter will be a bit different than they were last year, there'll be some different control measures in place to keep everyone healthy and safe. So, you know, I continue to have confidence in ServiceNet, and they are the state's licensed provider. And we continue to work closely to refine how to best provide the care and comfort to people who are homeless.
Given the conversation around the issue this year, are you working or going to plan on working on a larger strategy for unhoused city residents moving into 2021?
Yes, we are. So a couple of things have happened over the summer months. So, one of the things that I observed was that there were a number of agencies in the community who are in this field of work, all of them doing really amazing things, but often pretty deep inside their silos. So one of the things that has happened is there is now a weekly Zoom session among the various community agencies so that they are in building a stronger collaboration with one another. That's been a very positive outcome. Obviously, the work we've done to address the immediate need of winter sheltering has come to a conclusion. And we have already begun to talk with housing specialists to determine what is our best next strategy for a long term solution. And we've got to look at housing at every level of housing in the city of Pittsfield, everything from crisis sheltering to supportive housing, to market rate housing. We need a very, very diverse landscape of housing options in the city of Pittsfield.