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Homeless aid funding grows


Emergency shelter plan to be re-instituted, expanded to North, South County; more support for those about to lose homes

Berkshire Eagle 10/26/2014, Page A01

By JimTherrien

jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com @BE_ therrien on Twitter

PITTSFIELD­ A more coordinated and better funded response to homelessness has Berkshire County in a much better position to offer a wider range of assistance this winter, local officials believe.

An emergency shelter plan that came together in Pittsfield a year ago only after a donation from Berkshire Health Systems will be re-instituted in November. It also will expand to Northern and Southern Berkshire through a state funding earmark obtained by the county’s legislative delegation.

Additional efforts by Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, Soldier On and other organizations will support residents at risk of being evicted or losing a home from becoming homeless, likely reducing the number seeking emergency shelter.

“ We have all worked hard and had collaboration, and I think we have done something pretty positive, for this winter anyway,” said Jay Sacchetti, who oversees shelter and housing programs for ServiceNet Inc. The organization operates Barton’s Crossing, a transitional shelter on North Street in Pittsfield, and will once again provide 10 emergency or short-term beds beginning in November.

Together with Soldier On, which will create space for another 10 or more emergency shelter beds at its West Housatonic Street facility, the two organizations met the city’s need last winter, Sacchetti said. From November to April 2014, the average number seeking emergency shelter was about 18, he said, with 105 in total staying short-term at those facilities. About 15 to 20 individuals were seen more frequently, he said.

The coordinated effort was cobbled together in early December, after it was learned that fall that the Salvation Army building on West Street could not host an emergency shelter as it had over the previous winter.

Berkshire Health Systems eventually donated $45,000 toward the costs of establishing that approach.

Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said having shelter funding from the state in place before cold weather sets in is a welcome development.

“ I am pleased that we received additional funds to help us meet the needs of those seeking shelter and other crucial services during the winter months,” he said.

Jack Downing, CEO and president at Soldier On, said he’s optimistic the demand for emergency shelter will be met this winter, and could decline because funding also is available for programs aimed at keeping tenants in their homes.

His organization, which operates throughout Western Massachusetts, has received a $ 400,000 grant to assist veterans who are in danger of losing their homes or being evicted, and Downing said much of that effort will be focused on Berkshire County.

There could be less of a need for emergency sheltering, Downing said, “ because we are stabilizing more veterans” in their current homes.

Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority is the agency that received the $150,000 state funding earmark obtained by the legislative delegation, Executive Director Brad Gordon said. About $125,000 of that amount will be funneled to organizations providing emergency shelter, he said, while the housing authority will have more funding for its own programs to assist those at risk of losing their homes.

Those programs provide financial literacy education, mediation services for tenants in danger of being evicted, and similar services, Gordon said, adding that there is a significant need in the Berkshires. While it appears there is sufficient funding for this winter, he said, the need for housing stabilization efforts, substance abuse treatment and affordable housing options is increasing.

“ There is a growing need,” he said, “and we have to try to monitor it and make sure to keep ahead of it.”

In North County, Family Life Support Center, which operates the transitional shelter Louison House in Adams, and Construct Inc., which operates a transitional shelter in Great Barrington, will have funding this year thorough the state earmark for short- term beds at local motels.

“ We have never had funding for emergency shelter in North County,” said Lindsay Errichetto, executive director of the 22- bed Louison House on Old Columbia Street, which accepts only those transitioning toward permanent housing. “ We are very excited about this.”

Errichetto said that, based on the inquiries for emergency shelter the organization typically receives during cold weather, she could envision the need to shelter 25 to 50 people this winter on a temporary basis.

Cara Davis, executive director at Construct Inc., which operates a transitional shelter on Mahaiwe Street in Great Barrington, said of the emergency shelter funding, ” This is kind of an experimental year. We have never had this before.”

State funding is expected to allow sheltering of individuals in motel rooms.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, said Berkshire lawmakers began talking to state Department of Housing and Community Development last winter, but at first no existing state program seemed to fit the county’s growing need. However, $ 150,000 was eventually secured for the Berkshires in the annual budget.

Long term, he said, the goal will be to secure annual grant funding to support a coordinated effort in the county.

After the need became apparent last year, the entire Berkshire delegation worked to gain funding, said Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said, “ I think if this is a successful program, we can go back for support to continue it.”

“Berkshire County should be proud,” said Downing of Soldier On. “ We have done some good work with a number of groups involved.”

He praised the legislators for securing state funding and BHS because it “ put up the money and then hosted meetings that lead to solutions.”

In addition to providing 10 or more emergency shelter beds, Soldier On will provide van transportation for homeless people to Barton’s Crossing or to the Soldier On facility, as well as to the hospital if there are intoxication or addiction issues that require attention by medical personnel.

Veterans who volunteer at Soldier On, some of whom have “ been there themselves,” assist the homeless on a volunteer basis, Downing added, and they are staff trained to assist someone with substance or mental health issues.

He also praised Police Chief Michael Wynn and city police for their enlightened approach to dealing with homeless individuals.

“ They are very good at this,” Downing said. “ These men are comfortable around the police,” he said.

Justine Dodds, the city’s housing specialist, said that, unlike last year, having funding in advance “ has been very helpful, knowing that ahead of time that we have it.”