Amherst Community Connections offers housing and job search support for homeless people

Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2016

AMHERST — As an artist specializing in portraits and science fiction illustrations, Arthur “Art” Vickers is pursuing his craft while trying to secure permanent housing and steady employment.

But until he moved recently into his cousin’s home in Monson, Vickers had put his artistic career on hold, including during the time he spent at the Craig’s Place homeless shelter, a site that he said was not conducive to completing his oil, pen-and-ink and watercolor paintings and where his works, like his still missing guitar, were at risk of being stolen.

Now, Vickers is among those trying to get permanent housing and gainful employment by using the services of Amherst Community Connections, an agency run by Hwei-Ling Greeney from 2,000 square feet in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Society, 121 N. Pleasant St.

Greeney recently opened what she calls the One-Stop Resource Center that is serving about 50 people a week.

“We do nothing but housing,” said Greeney, a former member of the town’s Select Board and longtime advocate for people who are homeless and at risk of losing their homes. “It’s a dedicated space for housing, and other elements that are needed to get you into housing.”

On one recent morning, the office was buzzing with activity.

At one of four computer terminals available for visitors, a man jotted down on a piece of scrap paper potential housing options he was finding on Craigslist. Greeney suggested he would need a larger piece of paper with all the leads he was discovering.

In another room, a woman filled out an application to get a birth certificate, which will allow her to get a job. The cost of obtaining this certificate was covered by the agency. She also applied for free bus passes for PVTA transportation.

Down a hallway in a conference room, Scott Troio of Springfield consulted with a volunteer in hopes that, within three to four months, he will have a full-time job. He recently was paid for cleaning the homeless shelter each morning — and flashed a dollar bill, which he tacked to a bulletin board in Greeney’s office, to represent the accomplishment of earning his first paycheck.

Open 45 hours a week, the center has 8 to 11 a.m. drop-in hours weekdays, and is also open by appointment between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Greeney said her focus is moving people from homelessness to both housing and employment.

Additional resources

The idea for such a center developed as Greeney saw the continued success of the homeless shelter, Craig’s Place at the First Baptist Church, where homeless people can get out of the cold for the duration of the winter, have a meal each night and receive assistance from social workers. But there are still insufficient resources. While there are additional meals throughout the week at the Amherst Survival Center and Not Bread Alone, and groceries, clothes and other items available at the survival center, there is a presumption that someone already has housing, Greeney said.

The drop-in center is modeled after the ServiceNet drop-in center in Northampton, which is open during the days after the Interfaith Winter Shelter at 43 Center St. closes.

“We see if you have a shelter you must have a drop-in place,” Greeney said.

In addition to Greeney, three paid staff members and more than a dozen community volunteers are at the site, which also has access to a room with toys where child care can be provided for parents doing a job search and a conference room where service agency representatives can do teleconferences.

Snacks and coffee are provided by the nearby Share Coffee on Kellogg Avenue.

The expansion of Amherst Community Connections, which began in a small room at the Amherst Carriage Shops, is made possible through Greeney’s organizations’ People’s Fund, direct fundraising appeals to the community and the Western Massachusetts Community Foundation.

“The needs are so great since we have people in and out of the shelter,” Greeney said. “If there are no services, then people will be back at the shelter at night. We need to break that cycle.”

Reunited with cousin

Vickers said that was the situation he faced for a time, until he was reunited with his cousin Bernie Riley, who is allowing him to stay at his home in Monson. But Vickers doesn’t want that to be permanent.

“You can’t get a job if you don’t have a place,” Vickers said.

He, like others, has been in and out of the shelter.

“It is a revolving door,” Vickers said. “Most people don’t know how to navigate for themselves.”

Greeney said people need guidance to handle paperwork and get around bureaucracy.

“For me, I’m baffled by filling out forms,” Vickers explained.

Greeney said Vickers may have some of his artwork on display at the monthly Amherst Art Walk in April and may try to do sales online, such as on the Etsy website.

Supplements Survival Center

The drop-in center supplements what is already occurring at the Amherst Survival Center in North Amherst.

There, meals are served four days a week, a food pantry provides groceries to low-income families and individuals, and a store features clothes and household items.

Survival Center Executive Director Mindy Domb said the goal is to ensure that housing and jobs are also supported for the participants, which numbered 46,054 in 2015.

“The goal is one-stop shopping,” Domb said. “By having all these auxiliary services on site, it makes it easy for people to access them.”

For instance, a housing case manager from Eliot Homeless Services is on site from 2 to 6 p.m. Thursdays to assist people who are homeless or concerned about housing options.

The center has been promoting job support extensively for the past 18 months, with three workshops and job fairs in collaboration with the Franklin Hampshire Career Center. Another job workshop will take place this spring.

A volunteer is also on site from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays who works with people one-on-one to search for jobs online and to write resumes and cover letters.

There is also a Monday morning volunteer who makes referrals for people to area agencies, a Salvation Army volunteer who informs participants about services offered and additional volunteers to tell people about how to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and fuel assistance.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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