Homeless ‘crisis’ described in Amherst

  • The bench and patio of the CVS Pharmacy at 76 North Pleasant Street in Amherst is said to be a popular place for people to gather at night. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 7/15/2016 4:33:10 AM

AMHERST — Paul Scace sat on an overturned milk crate Thursday – just like he does every day – at his regular spot on Pleasant Street. He panhandled, he said, because he didn’t have anything else to do.

At 54 – his friends have nicknamed him AARP, he said – Scace is one of the older members of Amherst’s homeless community. And though he spends his days panhandling in the same spot, he said his nights, and those of other homeless people, have been spent searching for places to sleep since the Craig’s Place shelter closed May 1 for the season.

“We sleep on church benches, we sleep on steps, we sleep on library stairs and we get chased out,” he said.

Scace said he wished the town would open a shelter so homeless people could have a place to sleep during the summer, and so they would be less likely to be arrested for things like open container violations.

Amherst has seen a growing homeless population this summer, and residents and local leaders have expressed concerns about people sleeping outside. In May, police and conservation staff removed – and, in some cases, discarded – tents and other camping materials from public grounds where homeless people had been staying. Police have established a crisis intervention team for outreach to homeless people.

On Thursday night, leaders and residents met for a 2½-hour community forum on homelessness planned earlier this month at the Town Hall to discuss those and other concerns. About 100 people filled the Town Room.

The forum began with a series of short presentations by community leaders and experts in housing and community development.

Jay Levy, representing Eliot CHS Homeless Services, said more housing needs to be available, and that it needs to be accessible to the people who need it.

Hwei-Ling Greeney, the executive director of Amherst Community Connections, reiterated this concern. “Without the adequate housing, no matter how much services we pile on … it’s useless,” she said. “Housing is what you need.”

Several speakers emphasized the need for communication among housing and community groups.

“I think we have to think of this as a larger community than just Amherst,” said Dave Christopolis, the executive director of the Hilltown Community Development Corp., based in Chesterfield, and administrator of the Three County Rural Continuum of Care. “One of the reasons I came tonight was to try to connect people.”

Sarah la Cour, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said the business community is trying to learn more about the struggles homeless people face and what it can do to help.

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone noted the department’s outreach program, which he said is designed to help keep people out of jail.

Rev. Vicki Kemper of the First Congregational Church in Amherst said more homeless people seem to be staying in Amherst this summer than in previous years. The church acts as an open space and is used by homeless people seeking shelter, and Kemper said more people have used the building than expected.

“The situations we have encountered in the past few months are unlike anything we have seen before,” she said. “They lead us to conclude we are in a crisis. And again, the crisis is not inconveniences being caused by folks without homes but the fact that they don’t have homes.”

‘Brave and resilient’

Rebekah Wilder, the executive director of Craig’s Doors, which runs Craig’s Place. Near the end of the panel discussion, she directly addressed the homeless community in attendance.

“You guys are strong and brave and resilient,” she said. “I want to make sure that you know that.”

But all of those who attended agreed with the speakers. At the end of the formal presentations, Phillip O’Connell, who identified himself as homeless, spoke. He called the previous speakers “frauds” and “phonies” and said he didn’t believe they were trying to help the homeless community.

“You’re treated worse than a Jim Crow Negro in the Jim Crow south if you’re homeless,” said O’Connell, who is white.

His comments caused a stir. Crowd members spoke among themselves, with several saying they wish more people experiencing homelessness had been invited to speak.

Afterward, the room divided into several small groups to discuss how community involvement and response to homelessness could improve. Four of the groups focused on individual topics – outreach, available services during the day, access to housing and shelter and coordination of services and support – with a fifth for more open discussion.

The outreach group suggested targeting it to “invisible” populations such as youths and veterans.

The coordination group proposed a “clearinghouse” to make information more accessible, as well as more forums like the one on Thursday.

Several groups mentioned the need for more year-round services, and the housing group said the town needs to commit to a number of affordable housing units it can build.

Thomas Kegelman, the chairman of the recently established Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust, said it hopes to set a concrete goal within a year, but forums like this also need to keep happening.

“This is how it happens,” he said, gesturing around the room. “If you guys can keep coming to the meetings, putting pressure on the people who make those decisions to stand up and say ‘We need more’ … unless there’s pressure, it ain’t happening.”

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