Know Your Neighbor Coalition
seeks a better Amherst for all

Friday, April 25, 2014
When former business executive Betsy McInnis of Amherst heard that the Survival Center was going to have to foot a $12,000 bill to get a bus to serve patrons, she got mad.

“I was appalled that they were going to have to use money raised to feed people to pay the PVTA,” she said.

The town soon agreed to pay some of it — a temporary fix until something else was worked out. But still.

For several months before that, ever since it moved from its old home on North Pleasant Street, the center had been paying for taxi cabs to get people there from the closest bus stop, nearly half a mile away.

“Really?” she asked. People were trudging through the snow with grocery bags and children in tow. “It made me realize how poorly we treat people in our town.”

A member of the board of directors of Family Outreach of Amherst, an advocacy agency for struggling families, McInnis began griping to everyone she knows. “I started spouting and I was getting angrier and angrier.”

Her listeners sympathized and she saw what she needed to do: get people who know how to get things done together and focus on the poor.

Here’s who signed on: Former Chamber of Commerce director Tony Maroulis, now University of Massachusetts community liaison; League of Women Voters co-president Cynthia Brubaker; sociologist Carleen Basler; Amherst Health director Julie Federman; school department community partnership coordinator, Kimberly Stender; state Rep. Ellen Story’s aide, Rebecca Fricke; Kevin Noonan, executive director of Craig’s Doors, the organization which runs the homeless shelter. And the list goes on — 20 and counting.

They call themselves the Know Your Neighbor Coalition — stating their intention clearly in their name. They’ve been meeting regularly in the Bangs Community Center since January to figure out ways to made Amherst “a more compassionate” community, as Brubaker says.

“It’s a broad representation of people who care,” McInnis said.

Transportation, housing, food, mental health are some of the issues they are tackling and they’ve already seen results.

The group’s first task — to make the bus routes, aimed mainly at the college community, more user friendly to low-income town residents who rely on them, too — has apparently persuaded the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority which operates them, to revise its plans.

Along with representatives of the Survival Center and other community groups, the coalition had about eight speakers make its case at a PVTA hearing in mid-April and they’ve pretty much secured a commitment from PVTA to add the center to its stops. The group will continue to press to keep full bus service intact once the students leave for the summer, when it has traditionally been cut way back, and ask the PVTA to look at other ways to improve it for those who depend on it.

“When you have a bus system designed entirely to support the college population and it falls off completely on holidays and in the summer,” said Basler, the system does not serve permanent residents.

Four major apartment complexes, housing 2,100 people, are located in South Amherst, miles from the Survival Center. With many of those tenants low income, and many without cars and also in need of getting to grocery stores and the mall on Route 9 in Hadley, the problem is glaring.

“It’s very exciting to see all of these people coming together to talk about this stuff at the same time,” McInnis said. “My background’s business and I tend to think that you can break down walls if you keep going at them.”

Business background

McInnis, who with her husband, Bruce, moved to Amherst from Dallas in 2000, had marketing positions at American Express and Citibank among other executive posts before she devoted herself to being community volunteer here.

She, along with Brubaker and Basler, sat down with me recently to talk about the coalition’s plans. And they are big plans. A goal is to get Town Meeting to include money for certain social services agencies in the town operating budget as it was until financial hard times in 2009 pressed the town to cut it and turn to Community Development Block Grant funding instead. That has made it a competitive process which, McInnis says, pits agencies against one another.

In 2008, the town had budgeted $66,000 to support several organizations including the Not Bread Alone food kitchen, the Survival Center and Family Outreach of Amherst. The year before that the sum was $160,000.

“I would love to see certain agencies declared essential services and they would be budgeted appropriately,”she said. “I’m not talking huge dollars, maybe $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 per agency. That would really help a lot.”

But how many, and which agencies get that “essential” label are details to be worked out. “I haven’t really looked at it yet,” she said, “but we need to. Now all our human services are funded in such a loosey-goosey way.”

McInnis knows the pitch, which the group hopes to make during a special Town Meeting in the fall, will be a tough sell. Many Town Meeting members don’t see the need, which is why the coalition plans to arm itself with facts and figures, provided by university and Amherst College student researchers, and videos, also done by students, in which those in need will describe their circumstances.

“Put people in front of the camera and let them speak for themselves,” said McInnis. “It’s very compelling.”

Fifty percent of the incoming kindergarten students in the Amherst schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, which means they are from families living below the poverty line. That is strong evidence, McInnis, Brubaker and Basler say, that Amherst has a sizable number of people who need help.

And those with jobs are among them. McInnis tells the story of a business owner who approached her at a Christmas party for children served by Family Outreach and expressed surprise that some of his employees’ families were there.

And then there was the acquaintance who asked to be taken around town and shown the poverty.

A better idea, McInnis decided, is to illuminate the problems in a bigger way. “We want to make everyone aware of who lives in our community. Some are wealthy, some are poor, and the system needs to work for them all.”

McInnis, Burbaker and Basler said watching housing advocates rally to help the low-income residents evicted from Echo Village apartments a year ago was an eye opener. The landlord raised rents out of reach for those with subsidies and it put a spotlight on the shortage of affordable housing in town.

Community efforts to address that have been waged in earnest since. A sizable chunk of the annual Town Meeting action, set to begin next week, will be concentrated on that.

“Echo Village was a wake-up call that there are people in town who are vulnerable in so many ways,” McInnis said. It also reminded people that there is strength in numbers.

“I think the housing authority was really surprised at how people got mobilized and it had a real impact,” said Brubaker, who will be heading up the effort for the coalition to look into the poor’s access to food. “I think we can do that, too.”

The challenge

McInnis acknowledges that tackling an issue as large as poverty is an enormous challenge. “But if you break it down into smaller pieces, it’s not as bad.” A focus will be on finding creating solutions.

People like health director Julie Federman and Family Outreach of Amherst caseworker Francine Rodriguez are professionals who have been grappling with these problems for years, she noted. Now others are pitching in. “We are just looking at this with a different set of eyes,” she said. “The people of Amherst want to be socially responsible,” Basler added. “We as a community have said that out loud in many different venues. Our agenda is really to bring attention to ways we can do it.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.