Guest columnists Karen Bellavance-Grace, Laurie Loisel and Megan Paik: Commission: Housing is an urgent human right

  • Northampton Fire Chief Jon Davine takes a phone call in the 48-cot emergency shelter in the high school gymnasium on April 1. Gazette file photo

Members of the Northampton Human Rights Commission believe access to safe housing is an urgent human rights issue. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, this sense of urgency is even greater, and the consequences of unstable housing even graver.

As we look ahead to the coming colder weather while navigating the public health crisis of COVID-19, we are especially concerned about those among us who do not have adequate housing.

Last spring, city leaders did the right thing in opening an emergency shelter at Northampton High School. According to figures provided by ServiceNet, 45-50 people took shelter at the high school. The arrangement allowed people without housing to be sheltered at a site that provided adequate social distancing space. The temporary high school shelter also allowed people to remain on site during the day — important given that most of the regular spots they frequent were closed.

At our July HRC meeting, we heard from a staff person who worked at the emergency shelter last spring and described for us the challenges faced at the high school and continued concerns about those among us who do not have secure housing in the middle of a pandemic.

We share those concerns. When the high school shelter closed abruptly in May, and guests relocated to Center and Grove Street shelters, they were left to fend for themselves during the hours the shelters were closed from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

While that may be OK during normal times, during a pandemic it is not. Many places that provide respite such as public libraries or indoor cafes are not available. As a community, we need to think carefully about how best to meet the needs of people without homes, particularly in light of a pandemic.

At the August HRC meeting, City Planner Wayne Feiden outlined planning efforts underway for a resilience hub, one of the recommendations of the mayor’s panhandling report last winter, to provide structure and support to the most vulnerable people in our community. We support this concept and hope to see it fast-tracked.

At our September Human Rights Commission meeting on Wednesday, we will hear from Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. We invite anyone to join the meeting, which runs from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and the link can be found on the agenda posted on the city website, or here:

The Northampton HRC is guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 Section 1 of that document states “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being ... including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood ... ”

Many people with housing are looking ahead to the cold weather months with dread and anxiety about being stuck inside amid the pandemic in the winter. Imagine how much worse it would feel if you had no home to shelter you?

Now is the time to make compassionate and public health-oriented plans for the coming cold-weather season — when public indoor safe spaces again will be in short supply. The coronavirus is still a threat, and we must find a safe way to shelter people who have none.

The authors are members of the Northampton Human Rights Commission. This column was also authored by commission members Booker Bush, Nural Mohammed and Davina Miller.

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