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Pittsfield Planners Delay Downtown Homeless Shelter Vote
By Jack Guerino, iBerkshires Staff
04:04AM / Thursday, July 23, 2020
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Community Development Board continued a hearing allowing more time to consider the development of a homeless shelter downtown.
 
A proposed shelter at 55 Fenn St., First United Methodist Church, took up the bulk of Tuesday night's meeting and after hearing some backlash from downtown businesses, the board extended the hearing to another month.
 
"For me I need some more time and I really feel that we need to hear from the abutters and other citizens of Pittsfield," board member Floriana FitzGerald said. "We need a better discussion where people will be able to speak and give suggestions." 
 
The church looks to establish a 40-bed homeless shelter in a former classroom space.
 
Architect John Barry said the space would include shelter, provide services for the homeless, and would be two floors (a floor for men and a floor for women). The space would be separate from the church and be handicapped accessible. 
 
This would replace ServiceNet's Barton's Crossing location and Jay Sacchetti, a senior vice president at ServiceNet, said this would be an ideal location for a new shelter. He said shelters in downtown areas are common in other municipalities and would centralize residents with needed services. 
 
The Rev. Ralph Howe spoke before the board opened up the floor to calls and took time to address some of the comments he anticipated hearing from callers over the next hour.
 
Howe said Downtown Pittsfield Inc. was informed of the possible shelter in the fall and a meeting was held between the two parties in February. He said this was the last he heard from downtown business association until last week.
 
After that, they held a series of meetings: one with the directors and a second with business owners just Monday night.
 
"The problem seems to be they just don't want a shelter in the downtown even if it is two blocks from North Street," he said. "We recognize there are issues created for merchants in the downtown area by street people but for those of us who actually know the street people...this is a red herring issue for this project."
 
He added that those who may cause issues in the downtown likely do not use the shelter that does have rules and regulations. He said these folks are most likely suffering from mental health or addiction afflictions.
 
"While these problems are real they are not problems with the shelter," he said.
 
The church had a tried to develop a shelter a decade ago, finally opening a day-shelter in 2011 for a period of time.
 
First to call into the Zoom meeting was former Downtown Pittsfield President Jesse Cook-Dubin, who asked that the hearing be delayed for another two months. He said he felt as though Downtown Pittsfield was not properly notified and wanted more time for stakeholders to weigh in.
 
"The point is not that these challenges are the fault of the homeless shelter or the fault of homeless people," he said. "The point is that the downtown business environment is in critical condition ... we are concerned about the challenges a homeless shelter could pose for a downtown."
 
He went on to say Downtown Pittsfield does not flat out condemn the shelter but just wants more time to make suggestions and provide possible conditions. He said the remote meeting that took place Monday was last minute and was mostly attended by shelter proponents
 
"Most of the comments were intended and succeeded in shaming and intimidating the business and property owners for speaking out," Cook-Dubin said. "Some were accused of having a lack of humanity."
 
Dozens called in against the project and John Keegan, an accountant whose firm is next door to the church, said he was blindsided by the project that was developing right next door.
 
He also shared some concerns and said, in the past, when the church hosted the day program there were issues on his own property. Program attendees solicited from employees and clients, smoked, drank, slept in the courtyard, slept in trash cans, used drugs, and used the property as a toilet, he said.
 
Keegan did note the church put a stop to the program but did not clean up his property.
 
David Tierney, owner of Hotel on North, echoed some of the same points and asked that the board take a broader view of the downtown. He said another concern was where shelter residents would go once the shelter closed during the day.
 
"Homelessness and panhandling is a detriment to the downtown," he said. "It may not be as bad as New York City but it still detracts from our businesses … let's take our time and do this right." 
 
There were many calls in favor of the shelter and resident Drew Herzog asked the board to act on the application that night.
 
"This sort of shelter is desperately needed in Pittsfield and we need to move forward now," he said. "There has been lots of planning and this is ripe and ready to do ... this is the right location at the right time." 
 
The city, with ServiceNet, set up a temporary shelter at the former St.Joseph's High School because of the pandemic but recently shut it down after funds ran dry. Currently, homeless encampments are springing up in city parks. 
 
This was a more immediate issue for other callers who urged the board to move on the application giving ServiceNet and the church time to ready the shelter before winter.
 
Howe mentioned earlier that he was unwilling to accept delaying the process because they are on such a tight deadline if they want to be open for fall.
 
Other callers who have supported the project went through the long timeline of the project and felt both the city and Downtown Pittsfield were well aware of the development.
 
Others felt allowing for homelessness in other parts of the city but not the downtown was not a good look for Pittsfield.
 
"What kind of downtown do we really have if we have a downtown that is not for everybody?" Elton Ogden, President at Berkshire Housing Development Corp, said. "The risk to that is we have gentrification that excludes people who may have lived here through the good times and the bad times."
 
City Planner CJ Hoss addressed the board after the public hearing portion and said there is still some work the city needs to do. He said the application narrative was lacking in some areas and the city needs time for proper analysis so it can better support the board. 
 
He said much of the information heard during the hearing will be useful when drafting some possible conditions.
 
Hoss did agree that the subject was time-sensitive and felt his department could wrap up this work in two weeks.
 
The board tended to agree and voted to continue their hearing until their August meeting giving the shelter and Downtown Pittsfield a month to better communicate.
 
"I think this has been framed as an either-or position. We either have a homeless shelter downtown or we don't," board member Gary Levante said. "I think that there are other paths forward ... I think coming together and having a conversation about this will be helpful."
 
The board plans to meet on Aug. 18.
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