With construction work looming, mayor urges homeless settlers under South Street bridge to move

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  • After the overdose death in the encampment in early July, KB McConnell decides to set up camp for the last two weeks before they have to clear it out. He clearly marks his tent as a harm reduction site as well as with a Nothing but kindness logo. July 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • After the overdose death in the encampment in early July KB McConnell decides to set up camp for the last two weeks before they have to clear it out. He clearly marks his tent as a harm reduction site as well as with a Nothing but kindness logo. July 7, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • After the overdose death in the encampment in early July KB McConnell decides to set up camp for the last two weeks before they have to clear it out. He clearly marks his tent as a harm reduction site as well as with Nothing but kindness logo. July 7, 2021. Helping him is Amrita Acharya, a volunteer who works with McConnell. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • KB McConnell talks with Orlando Melendez as McConnell walks through down town Northampton during his out reach hours talking to people who might need his services. He is with. July 7, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • After an overdose death in the encampment under the South Street Bridge in early July, KB McConnell set up camp there for the last two weeks before it needs to be vacated. Helping him Wednesday is volunteer Amrita Acharya. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Amrita Acharya, a volunteer who works with McConnell and KB McConnell walk away from the homeless camp under the bridge to continue the out reach work McConnell does in Northampton. After the overdose death in the encampment in early July KB McConnell decides to set up camp for the last two weeks before they have to clear it out. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • James Bushey Jr. talks on Monday, July 12, 2021, about an impending deadline to vacate an encampment under the New South Street bridge in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • From left, C.J. Cummings, James Bushey Jr. and Eric Anderson talk Monday about their situations as a deadline approaches to break down an encampment under the New South Street bridge in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Recent rains have flooded parts of the encampment under the New South Street bridge in Northampton on Monday, July 12, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • KB McConnell, founder and executive director of the harm reduction nonprofit Nothing But Kindness, talks about efforts to improve the situations for people experiencing homelessness during a break from his work in the Manna Community Center in Northampton on Monday, July 12, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • KB McConnell, founder and executive director of the harm reduction nonprofit Nothing But Kindness, talks about his work in the Manna Community Center in the basement of Saint John's Episcopal Church in Northampton on Monday, July 12, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • KB McConnell, founder and executive director of the harm reduction nonprofit Nothing But Kindness, talks about efforts to improve the situations for people experiencing homelessness during a break from his work in the Manna Community Center in Northampton on Monday, July 12, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Construction equipment for an improvement project at the Roundhouse parking lot in Northampton began being staged along the south edge of the lot on Monday afternoon, July 12, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Construction equipment for an improvement project at the Roundhouse parking lot in Northampton began being staged along the south edge of the lot on Monday afternoon, July 12, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Construction equipment for an improvement project at the Roundhouse parking lot in Northampton began being staged along the south edge of the lot on Monday afternoon, July 12, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • There are currently eight tents set up in an encampment under the New South Street bridge in Northampton, including that of KB McConnell, at lower right. Photographed on Monday, July 12, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/12/2021 8:41:12 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The deadline is fast approaching for homeless settlers of a tent encampment in downtown Northampton to find somewhere else to stay.

On any given day, at least six people live in tents under the South Street bridge behind the Roundhouse municipal parking lot. The lot is now closed for an improvement project set to break ground this week, but on Monday, half a dozen tents remained along the bike path less than 50 feet away.

The encampment formed last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a June meeting with activists and settlers, Mayor David Narkewicz offered a deadline of Thursday, July 15, for the site to break down.

KB McConnell, founder and executive director of the harm reduction nonprofit Nothing But Kindness, said he and other advocates are trying to find stable housing for everyone, but until then, they need somewhere else to go. Many of them, with just days left, still have no plans.

“These are people’s families, so let’s step up,” said McConnell. “It doesn’t need to be finances. It could be your connections, it could be having a conversation, it could be bringing a bottle of water. You’ve got to be able to do something.”

Crews from MASS-WEST Construction are set to repave and expand the Roundhouse lot, adding 22 parking spaces. They will improve drainage, add lighting and install electric vehicle charging stations, in addition to rerouting a stretch of the bike path to make room for the expansion.

In the early stages, Narkewicz said, the bike path will be closed in that area and a temporary detour around the construction site will be in place. He said completing that work early on would allow the bike path to reopen while the rest of the project is still underway.

“There’s going to be noise and dust and a lot of work going on, particularly in that corner” of the lot, said Narkewicz. “It’s a fairly significant project, upgrading that parking lot. … It would not be a safe place for somebody to try to live.

“We tried to be as flexible as possible,” he said. “The city did not do anything to disturb (the site) during COVID.”

Overall, more than two dozen people live alongside the bike path in Northampton, according to McConnell, who keeps a digital spreadsheet of their locations and any unique needs that each person might have.

McConnell, 49, has lived in a “harm reduction tent” under the South Street bridge for more than a week, since a settler at the site died of a drug overdose, to serve as a resource and an unofficial liaison with the city. He recognizes that officials cannot do whatever they want with taxpayer money, but he said there is room for a change to budget priorities.

“I personally don’t want to look at a wreath hanging on Main Street while someone is sleeping under it or overdosing,” said McConnell. “I don’t understand how we’re paying money for (that) when we have humans dying 20 feet from Pulaski Park.”

Charles “C.J.” Cummings, 45, lives in a tent under the bridge and most recently worked at Domino’s in Greenfield. A Level 3 sex offender registered as homeless, he was convicted in 1993 of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14. In 2000, he was convicted of the same charge and rape of a child.

Cummings said that his crimes were statutory rape, and the phrase “rape of a child” on his criminal record has destroyed relationships with potential employers and landlords. He said that he and other homeless settlers are ready and able to work, and many of them either have jobs or lost them very recently.

“This has been our home and we should be treated as such,” said Cummings. “These people in front of you are real.”

Jim Bushey installed insulation until he lost his housing in January. He moved into the encampment in May, and since then, he said he has lost 40 pounds; he also needs a hernia operation.

“People say, ‘Go get a job,’ and I get that … but all it takes is one thing to become homeless,” said Bushey. “Driving by a panhandler, I’d be the first one to say, ‘F you, get a job.’ Being down here with these guys, it’s a huge difference.

“These people just want more out of life,” said Bushey.

Cummings and Bushey plan to stay together when Thursday’s deadline arrives, along with their friend and fellow settler Eric Anderson. The trio are not sure where they’re going, but each said that they’re not looking for sympathy. They just want workable options.

Anderson said he is unconcerned about the noise and dust from the construction work, especially considering the damage done to tents when the area floods, the sound of the traffic on the South Street bridge overhead and the occasional jeers from people passing by on the bike path.

McConnell praised Narkewicz for working closely with him over recent weeks, and said they now talk on the phone “more nights than not.” He said he has asked the city to provide trash bags so the settlers can clean up after themselves when they move out.

Over the next two days, crews are going to prepare the site for work to commence on Thursday, said Narkewicz.

“I don’t foresee any formal eviction action,” he said. “We are asking them to relocate for their own health and safety due to the construction. It’s the same reason we have closed off the area to cyclists and walkers and why no parking is allowed during the project.”

Work is set to last for 2½ months.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com


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