New shelter for homeless opens Nov. 1 in Amherst 

  • People gather in front of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst for a breakfast served on Wednesdays. The shelter known as Craig’s Place will be moving to this location starting Sunday, Nov. 1. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kevin Noonan, the executive director of Craig’s Place, in the space at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst where the shelter will be moving starting Sunday, Nov 1. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fran Plumer, a volunteer and member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, eat breakfast in the space where the shelter known as Craig’s Place, will be moving starting Sunday, Nov. 1. Craig’s place staff will serve breakfast and lunch four days a week while the church volunteers will do Wednesday breakfast. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kevin Noonan, the executive director of Craig’s Place, in the space at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst where the shelter will be moving starting Sunday, Nov. 1. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kevin Noonan, the executive director of Craig’s Place, says goodbye to a friend outside the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst where the shelter will be moving starting Sunday, Nov 1. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kevin Noonan, the executive director of Craig’s Place, says goodbye to a friend outside the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst where the shelter will be moving starting Sunday, Nov 1. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2020 1:50:28 PM

AMHERST — Amherst’s overnight shelter for homeless guests will become an around-the-clock space, with services including laundry, counseling and meals, at a new site in downtown starting Nov. 1.

Known as Craig’s Place, the seasonal shelter is moving from the First Baptist Church, 434 North Pleasant St., adjacent to the University of Massachusetts campus, to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, 121 North Pleasant St., in part due to the need for more space to have guests socially distance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kevin J. Noonan, executive director of Craig’s Doors: A Home Association, Inc., said the relocation expands a partnership with the Unitarian society, where a year-round Wednesday morning breakfast has taken place since 2015.

“Our guests are familiar with the UU Meetinghouse as a place of welcome,” Noonan said in a statement. “We are incredibly grateful for the willingness of the UUSA to compassionately open their doors to people who are homeless this season.”

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said having a 24-hour site means homeless individuals will have a secure place to be at all times, rather than relying on hanging out in downtown businesses, including restaurants, that have more limited hours during the pandemic.

“We expect it will be safer for them,” Bockelman said.

But the new location will only have the capacity to house 16 guests through April 30, a 43% reduction from the 28 beds available during previous cold-weather seasons.

Noonan said the limited number of toilets set the upper limit on people who could stay overnight.

He acknowledges this reduction in beds could be a problem, especially if people have difficulty paying rent during the pandemic and are forced out of their homes. But Craig’s Doors is working to locate additional capacity elsewhere.

“With the sunsetting of the governor’s eviction moratorium, we anticipate an increased number of people in need, so any reduced capacity is concerning,” Noonan said. “We are exploring other options but we have not yet been able to finalize anything.”

The behavior-based policy for admitting guests will continue, meaning anyone under the influence of alcohol or drugs is welcome, so long as they are causing no issues.

Craig’s Doors will continue to have a resource center inside a trailer in the parking lot behind the First Baptist Church. There, homeless individuals have been able to store belongings, get help from staff members and charge their cellphones.

Noonan said the new site was developed by working with town officials on a temporary solution to get through this winter, as efforts to identify a permanent site for a shelter continue.

This will be a major change for Amherst’s homeless, as the First Baptist Church has been the shelter site for more than a decade. In December 2009, the town opened what at the time it called a “warming place” under the direction of the Center for Human Development, where guests were permitted to get out of the elements but not sleep.

The following season, with a full-fledged shelter allowed, Milestone Ministries was contracted to operate the site. Then, in fall 2011, Craig’s Doors was founded and took over operations.

The state also has provided significant support to the shelter, with a line item in the state budget for between $175,000 and $200,000.

Since the Unitarian Universalist Society is holding all services remotely through at least June 2021, with the building only being used for the community breakfasts and served in to-go containers for the past several months, hosting the shelter will not interfere with its operations. 

“In a time when so many of us feel somewhat helpless about the global and national course of events, working together to provide a shelter for 16 people has given our faith community an opportunity to open our hearts and live our mission,” Susan Rice, president of the Unitarian society, said in a statement.

Rev. Rachael Hayes, the minister at the church, said supplementing the breakfast is the right decision. “It feels good to deepen our relationship by hosting the shelter this winter,” Hayes said.

The Amherst Emergency Management Team led by Bockelman and made up of public health, fire and police officials, and Senior Center Director Mary Beth Ogulewicz is assisting with the planning of the shelter, such as the safety protocols to minimize the risk of transmission of the coronavirus.

Guests will also have access to medical care, counseling, job and housing assistance, laundry services, and case management through Craig’s Doors. Craig’s Doors will continue to operate an administrative site on the grounds of the First Baptist Church.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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