Sheltering in place: Amid COVID-19 and cold weather, homeless presence downtown swells

  • Andre Desjardines on the steps of Northampton’s City Hall, where he had been sleeping earlier this week. He moved recently because he was worried for his safety.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nathaniel James, Andre Desjardines and Christina Marie Remmes by the empty storefront that used to house Faces earlier this week. Remmes had been sleeping and living on the steps of City Hall in Northampton but recently found temporary housing.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Andre Desjardines on the steps of Northampton’s City Hall, where he had been sleeping earlier this week. He moved recently because he was worried for his safety.    STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Christina Marie Remmes, who goes by Smiles, with Andre Desjardines, left, and Nathaniel James, far right, by the empty storefront that used to house Faces on Main Street in Northampton earlier this week. Remmes had been sleeping and living on the steps of City Hall but recently found temporary housing. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A man who is homeless for the first time shows his tent in Northampton earlier this week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Andre Desjardines on the steps of Northampton’s City Hall, where he had been sleeping earlier this week. He moved recently because he was worried for his safety.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • JD Edwards and others in tents under the bridge on the bike path in Northampton earlier this week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • James Senuta heads out to catch a bus earlier this week. He was staying under the bridge by the bike path in Northampton while waiting for housing. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tents set up by the homeless under the bridge on the bike path in Northampton earlier this week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • JD Edwards and others in tents under the bridge on the bike path in Northampton earlier this week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • JD Edwards and others in tents under the bridge on the bike path in Northampton earlier this week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • JD Edwards and others in tents under the bridge on the bike path in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Christina Marie Remmes, who goes by Smiles, plays her guitar outside of the storefront that used to host Faces on Main Street in Northamtpon. For months, Smiles was living on the steps of City Hall steps, but she recently found temporary housing. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Andre Desjardines on the steps of Northampton’s City Hall, where he had been sleeping earlier this week. He moved recently because he was worried for his safety. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Christina Marie Remmes, who goes by Smiles, plays her guitar earlier this week in front of the empty storefront that used to house Faces on Main Street in Northampton. For months, Smiles was living on the steps of City Hall steps, but she recently found temporary housing. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brendan Plante, an engagement counselor with Eliot Homeless Services, in front of tents set up under the bridge at the bike path in Northampton earlier this week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/18/2020 4:54:42 PM

Editor’s note: In this series, the Gazette is looking at homelessness in Northampton — “Paradise City” to some who live here, but not all. Over the next several weeks, we will publish articles about people experiencing homelessness and how the city and community are responding to an issue that affects us all. If there’s an angle you’d like us to cover, email reporter Greta Jochem at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

NORTHAMPTON — On Tuesday afternoon, Christina Remmes, who goes by “Smiles,” was busking on Main Street in front of the empty storefront that once housed Faces, playing “The Rivers of Texas” on her guitar and collecting some money in her case. She chatted with friends as they walked by, handing one person some change from her guitar case.

Remmes, 38, is something of a fixture downtown, but she had a warm place to go during the snowstorm Wednesday night — she recently got temporary housing through a caseworker. For years, Remmes has been in and out of homelessness, and until recently she was camping out on the steps of City Hall and in other spots nearby.

Earlier this month, ServiceNet opened an emergency shelter at First Churches of Northampton, and Grove Street Inn has been open as well. Some homeless people like group shelters such as the one set up inside First Churches, Remmes said, but she usually felt safer camping. “Every homeless person is different,” she said.

Remmes acts as an advocate for others experiencing homelessness in the community and has contacted the city “about the need to do something about homelessness,” she said. She also dreams of starting a newspaper called the Town Crier. “I’ve got pipe dreams,” she said.

As she spoke, Nathaniel James, who is homeless for the first time, came and sat next to Remmes with his skateboard. “If you’re homeless in Northampton, you’re spoiled like a king, except when it comes to shelter,” he said, adding that he gets meals through Manna Community Kitchen.

The number of people experiencing homelessness is growing this year, said Brendan Plante, an engagement counselor at Eliot Homeless Services, which is part of Eliot Community Human Services. “The numbers are just shocking,” he said. Plante estimated that he has seen 150 to 200 people in need, and that’s if you don’t count the people doubled or tripled up in single-room housing.

As of January 2019, Massachusetts had an estimated 18,471 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, as reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” Plante said, “and this is probably the worst year that I’ve seen.”

For two decades, Plante has worked with people experiencing homelessness in Northampton, Amherst and other towns. He refers people to services in the area, acts as a case manager, helps those in need apply for benefits like SNAP, works to get people into housing, and passes out supplies including socks and hand warmers. Before COVID-19 struck, he would hold celebration of life events when a homeless person died.

Now, he said, “all our caseloads are going up because of the sheer number of homelessness in this area. That has changed quite drastically since the pandemic.”

Plante’s current caseload is around 30 people, and that’s all he can handle at the moment, but “I just have to step out of my car and walk down Main Street, and I could pick up 15 clients like that.”

Since the pandemic began, he has been seeing a lot more people who are homeless for the first time. Every time a restaurant shutters, Plante said, “What happens to those people serving? They go paycheck to paycheck.”

“I’m just afraid that if the evictions go through, we’re looking at some bad times,” he added.

A major issue is the lack of affordable housing, said Jack Tulloss, a clinical case manager at ServiceNet. Recently, a client of his got subsidized housing in Northampton after three years of waiting.

“That’s not uncommon … you wait … and while you’re waiting, you wait a bit more,” he said. Tulloss works at ServiceNet’s resource centers in Northampton and Greenfield and helps clients get identification cards if they don’t have them and apply for public benefits if they qualify. His ultimate goal is to get them housing. When a client comes in, Tulloss asks, “‘What brings you to the shelter, and what can I do for you?’ And then I shut my mouth and let the client start talking.”

Plante has had clients from all socioeconomic backgrounds. “Homelessness could happen to anyone,” he said. He speaks from professional and personal experience. Twenty-two years ago, Plante was homeless himself — he had a master’s degree in counseling, but he ended up on the streets in Northampton due to depression and anxiety he left unchecked, he said.

“There are many, many people in this society that could be homeless at any point in time,” he said.

City Hall steps

Over the past few weeks, a number of city residents have aired complaints about people camping out on City Hall’s entryway with their sleeping bags, food and other belongings. Some residents have sent in letters and photos to the Gazette documenting what one former business owner described as a “mess.”

While the presence of homeless people on the City Hall steps has become a flashpoint for some residents, there are many other places where people experiencing homelessness have tried to make a home. Some have set up camp behind city buildings, underneath bridges and in the woods not far from residential neighborhoods. Some people, like Smiles Remmes, are open about their situation, while others are not.

“It’s kind of shameful,” said one man who was sleeping behind a building in a tent with a tarp over it on Tuesday. His main worry is the cold.

“I’m just wondering, who’s going to die first with people outside at night?” he asked.

“It’s only a matter of time with the weather coming. No one should die of exposure. It’s ridiculous,” he said as he walked to stay warm.

He didn’t want to give his name, but he noted that he is homeless for the first time. Others he sees on the street have been in and out of homelessness for years, like Smiles. He figured out quickly where to get meals but said learning out how to navigate different systems and services for those in his situation is difficult.

On Tuesday, Andre Desjardines sat down next to Smiles on Main Street to chat. The day before, he had been sitting in a sleeping bag at the top of the City Hall steps. Duffel bags were stacked behind him and shoes lined up next to him. He’s homeless for the second time in his life, he said, adding that he tried to get into the ServiceNet shelter inside First Churches but that first he needed to get a COVID test. (He got it the next day, he later said.)

More recently, ServiceNet changed its policy to allow people in with a COVID screening and planned to test those guests later in the week, according to Amy Timmins, vice president of community relations at ServiceNet.

When he was homeless in the past, Desjardines stayed at a ServiceNet shelter. “The pandemic did affect where we can go and sit down,” he said.

Though he was waiting for a warm place to sleep on Tuesday, he feels there are a lot of resources in the city — he said he gets meals at Manna, and Smiles gave him a blanket. “I’m grateful for this town,” he said.

But the relationship can be complicated. Joseph Blumenthal, a former business owner who now rents downtown commercial property, is one resident who wrote to the Gazette taking issue with people camping on the steps of City Hall. “The mess that’s on the steps of City Hall makes it looks like the city doesn’t care about its property,” he said in an interview.

He says it’s bad for business, noting that he thinks people panhandling downtown makes others uncomfortable.

“We’re such a rich country, people shouldn’t have to sit on the streets and beg for money,” Blumenthal said. “Given that they do, we have to try and find ways to make it manageable so that other people aren’t scared away by it.”

Mayor David Narkewicz has heard from residents like Blumenthal raising concerns about the City Hall entryway.

“I’ve had lots of people call me and say, ‘How can you let people do that?’” Narkewicz said. “To me, I feel like it’s, how can the richest nation ... have people that go hungry and that live on the streets?”

He added, “I’ve had some spirited conversation with people about it who feel that, how can I allow these people to be on the steps of City Hall? And my response is that they are human beings in need … Until I can find them shelter, I’m hard-pressed to kick them off the steps. That’s my position.” He said his office is in regular contact with Plante to try to help people in need and that they found at least one person temporary housing.

On Friday, following the snowstorm, the steps of City Hall were clear except for some salt. In general, though, people experiencing homelessness in Northampton are more visible now, Plante said. Before the pandemic, many spent time in the library or in coffee shops, but that’s no longer an option, he said.

“Why are they on the steps of City Hall?” Plante asked. “A lot of them, there’s nowhere else to go.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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