Columnist Northampton Youth Commission Elijah Bacal and Lucas Laing: It’s time for the city to act on homelessness crisis

  • The Roundhouse building in Northampton. Gazette file photo

Published: 2/25/2022 2:15:32 PM
Modified: 2/25/2022 2:15:11 PM

Northampton prides itself on the extent to which we value the shared livelihood and equitability of our community. When problems arise that threaten these core values, our city has taken decisive action to work toward solutions.

One issue, however, that Northampton has yet to adequately address is our ongoing homelessness crisis. The sheer number of people who are left without a home to return to and a bed to sleep in night after night, coupled with Northampton’s currently insufficient infrastructure to provide urgently needed relief, has created an abysmal situation.

Our city is obligated to address this issue effectively and compassionately. While Northampton has a number of services available to people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, and is planning to expand upon its existing programs with projects such as the Community Resilience Hub, these resources are currently not easily accessible, and more needs to be done to maintain the safety, dignity, and inclusion of the most vulnerable members of our community.

The city is exploring the purchase of the Curran Roundhouse Building for the Community Resilience Hub, which will support housing insecure and homeless community members by providing them with shelter and connecting them to social services. The Hub will also serve as infrastructure to help the city prepare for climate-related weather events and other emergencies, and the residents who may be displaced by them.

Through the Hub, the city is seeking to centralize its social safety net, which is often hard to navigate for people already experiencing the stress of housing insecurity or homelessness. The centralization of social services, including access to health care, shelter, clothing, information about permanent housing, and a mailing address will be a welcome improvement.

While the Hub is a significant step in the right direction, it is not enough to fully address the pressing needs of the homeless community in Northampton. We must take additional immediate, ambitious action to help the homeless population.

The Northampton Policing Review Commission’s 2021 “Reimagining Safety” report provides a roadmap for some further steps we can take. The report recommends that Northampton undertake a “housing first approach” to homelessness. This approach states that access to permanent housing is almost always a precursor to improving an individual’s economic situation and mental health. Understanding this, we should recognize an imperative to provide permanent housing solutions to homeless individuals, irrespective of their history in the system or economic means.

While state and federal funds may be necessary for an initiative like this, much can still be done at the local level. In order to protect the safety of the homeless community, the commission’s report also recommends exploring alternatives to police response, through the Department of Community Care or other agencies. People who are trained to de-escalate and connect individuals with services will be more effective responders than a police officer.

Additionally, the city needs to make direct investments in shelter infrastructure whenever possible. We need to provide more beds and immediate relief for people in need, and add to the approximately 150 beds currently available in the area.

Finally, the city should invest in more subsidized housing, and amend the zoning code to allow development to meet affordability needs at every level, and help prevent homes from becoming too expensive in the first place.

As young people and Northampton Public School students, we want to see Northampton live up to its stated values — equity, inclusiveness, being a safe haven for marginalized communities — which have been instilled in us all our lives, and show a commitment to these values into the future. To realize these ideals, we must embrace a decisively generous and compassionate approach to helping our homeless community members. Our city government and community must work together to create a better Northampton for everyone.

Elijah Bacal, Co-Chair of the Northampton Youth Commission, and Lucas Laing, Co-Vice Chair of the Northampton Youth Commission.
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