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Pittsfield Committee Talks Housing Options for Homeless
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
01:17AM / Monday, November 16, 2020
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The Committee on Public Health and Safety talks options for the homeless.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Solving the homelessness crisis in Pittsfield will take more than "a magic wand" the Committee on Public Health and Safety was told. 
 
Councilors Chris Connell, Kevin Morandi, Patrick Kavey and Chair of the Homeless Committee Ed Carmel brought this conversation to the committee with a petition requesting Mayor Linda Tyer to authorize $75,000 in free cash to assist the homeless in acquiring temporary and/or permanent housing.
 
The committee on Thursday heard from a number of sources on the issue, including Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer, who said the city has been working agencies to define what type of project would work for a homeless population whose needs have changed.
 
"We are still in the analysis phase," she said. "We appreciate very much all of these questions and inquiries, but we can't just wave a magic wand and expect it to be resolved we have to do it methodically and thoroughly and we look forward to having the councils support as we go through that process."
 
In early September, the Community Development Board approved the development of a 40-bed homeless shelter at First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street to be operated by mental health services provider ServiceNet.
 
The application was approved with 12 conditions, one which gives the downtown community two years to find an alternate location. It is not expected to be ready until May.
 
Jay Sacchetti, senior vice president of shelter and housing at ServiceNet, spoke to the committee about how Pittsfield can get to a point of permanent housing.
 
"Permanent supported housing is a goal that has been laid out across the county," he said.
 
Sacchetti believes it will happen, but it is a long-term project that will take a lot of effort and collaboration from housing authorities and the government.
 
He hopes at some point that the federal government takes more interest in being involved with these projects.
 
Jay Levy of Eliot Community Human Service's Homeless Service said the key to matching support services with affordable housing is finding a variety of funding sources for different opportunities.
 
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, can provide Section 8 vouchers that could then be specialized for populations such as the chronically homeless, he said.
 
Levy's organization, based in Lexington, has a program called CSPECH, which stands for "community supportive program for people experiencing chronic homelessness." Those experiencing chronic homelessness may be eligible through their health benefits plan to apply for these services.
 
CSPECH has proven -o reduce the cost of inpatient stays, which is why health care companies fund it, Levy said.
 
He said permanent supportive housing would be especially helpful to individuals that are not prone to go to a shelter because of fears of COVID-19, trauma, and problems with crowded areas and regulations.
 
He also suggested the development of a plan to keep people safe through the pandemic by being housed in hotels, which would require funds.
 
Lt. Col. Thomas Grady of the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office said his office is interested in this topic because one of the biggest concerns in developing service plans for inmates finishing their sentences is being able to find them permanent housing.
 
If released inmates cannot find permanent housing, they are at a much higher risk of reoffending and have a higher usage rates for the emergency department at Berkshire Medical Center, Grady said.
 
Grady said the sheriffs' office is working on a program to do more outside case management in conjunction with the hospital.
 
"We would love to see how this initiative could come forward," he said. "And any way the sheriffs' office may be able to support that effort."
 
Ruffer said the most well-known local entity for housing projects is Berkshire Housing Development Corp. and that city is not a housing and service provider.
 
The city supports and facilitates these efforts, but her opinion, doesn't belong in that business and wouldn't be any good at it.
 
Tyer and Ruffer's office have been working on a recognition that the city needs more supportive housing and single-room occupancy housing, she said.
 
But to get a project funded, it first needs to be defined the project. Ruffer said they are working with multiple agencies to define what type of project most immediately needed and where it could be located.
 
She also explained that the needs of the community have changed rapidly and the homeless population has escalated. Recently, the team has put together a five-year comprehensive plan and has found the dramatic change in needs that has occurred.
 
There are more challenges for the chronically homeless than just finances and that the success of providing housing is dependent upon having services for the recipients, Ruffer said. If they don't address the full range of needs, that's when residents struggle and fail in efforts to become housed on a permanent basis, she said.
 
The novel coronavirus has slowed these plans, as the team would have been further in planning without the pandemic.
 
Kavey said the reason the petition was made was to start a discussion about the topic, as it was hard to do so when the homelessness increase was first addressed. He was happy to see the committee having a conversation about it.
 
Councilor Helen Moon addressed Ruffer's comment in saying that the role of human services are not under the wheelhouse of municipal government. Moon noted that the city deals a lot with senior services and has a Council on Aging, suggesting that addressing senior needs is not that different than addressing homeless needs.
 
"It does feel like we do take on some instances of a more supportive role for vulnerable communities," Moon said. "And I'm not sure I'm convinced yet that the city shouldn't have a more supportive role for services."
 
Though Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio initially motioned to approve this petition, he then changed his motion to file it. The committee agreed unanimously.
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