Fire destroys homeless camp; Amherst, Northampton shelters near capacity

  • Kalia Richards, who lives at the Grove Street shelter, looks over what’s left of at least four tents in a homeless camp near Pulaski Park in Northampton. “We are all one big community,” Richards said when asked if she was friends with the people who had been in the tents. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kalia Richards, who lives at the Grove Street shelter, looks over what's left of at least 4 tents in a homeless camp near Pulaski Park in Northampton. "We are all one big community," said Richards when asked if she was friends with who had been in the tents. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The unhoused population in the Valley braved the coldest temperatures of the winter so far, as a polar vortex passed through a tent camp along the bike trail Saturday in Northampton, MA. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

  • The tent encampment beneath the bridge in Downtown Northampton braved the coldest weekend of the winter. Cold snaps caused by the polar vortex pose challenges for the unhoused populations and shelters around the Pioneer Valley. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

  • The tent encampment beneath the bridge in Downtown Northampton braved the coldest weekend of the winter. Cold snaps caused by the polar vortex pose challenges for the unhoused populations and shelters around the Pioneer Valley. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

  • The unhoused population in the Valley braved the coldest temperatures of the winter so far, as a polar vortex passed through a tent camp along the bike trail Saturday in Northampton, MA. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

Staff Writer
Published: 1/31/2021 7:16:53 PM

On the coldest weekend of the winter so far, the problems confronting people without homes were made vividly clear in Northampton.

A fire on Sunday morning, possibly caused by a small propane stove, destroyed a number of tents that had been set up along the city’s bike path, right under the South Street bridge near the Academy of Music and the Roundhouse parking lot.

One person was taken to Cooley Dickinson Hospital “for observation,” said Northampton Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Vanasse, but there did not appear to be any other injuries.

Vanasse said the fire is still under investigation but may have been caused by a small camp stove that set a tent alight, after which some small canisters of fuel exploded and spread the fire to other tents.

It’s not certain how many people were living at the location, but an article in the Gazette in late December included pictures showing at least four tents and perhaps one or two other makeshift shelters there.

On Sunday morning, there was just a pile of debris on site, including fabric remnants, the remains of a plastic chair, and a plastic crate.

Shelter full

In Amherst, meantime, every bed and then some was occupied at the two homeless shelters managed by Craig’s Doors, the nonprofit group that has aided the homeless in town since 2011.

Executive Director Kevin Noonan said 14 people sought shelter over the weekend at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst downtown, while another 24 were housed at the University Motor Lodge, on North Pleasant Street just south of the University of Massachusetts.

Noonan said he was also able to get space for two additional people at another nearby motel — he did not name it — because the other two sites were full up.

“COVID has been terrible for everyone, but one positive thing from this is that there’s been additional state and federal funding [for the homeless] as a consequence,” he said. “That helped us get some emergency motel space in this instance.”

The pandemic has of course complicated operations at shelters in Amherst and elsewhere, with people needing to be spaced at least 6 feet apart, cutting down on the number of beds available. People seeking entrance also must be screened for the virus before being admitted.

Luckily, positive tests haven’t been an issue so far at the Amherst shelters, Noonan said.

On another note, he said his organization would benefit from additional sleeping bags and tents for people who can’t be accommodated at the shelters.

In Northampton, two shelters run by ServiceNet, at First Churches and the Grove Street Inn, were close to capacity this weekend, according to Amy Timmins, spokeswoman for ServiceNet. The Grove Street Inn, off Route 66 south of Smith College, had 15 people — its full capacity — while 27 people stayed at First Churches, which can accommodate 30 people.

Simmins said First Churches has a small “overflow” capacity for five additional people, who would not have access to a cot but would still be sheltered inside the building. So far this winter, demand has not reached that level; the First Churches shelter just opened in December after people had previously stayed at the Interfaith building at 43 Center St.

Simmins said she was saddened to hear of the fire that destroyed the tent encampment on South Street. ServiceNet had not yet heard from any of the people who lived there but would certainly try to accommodate them if needed, she said. The agency has already heard from a few others who were concerned about being outside in the snowstorm predicted for Monday.

On the other hand, she said, some people from Holyoke who had previously stayed at the First Churches shelter had switched to a new facility in that city.

“I think COVID has made a lot more people aware of the problems of homelessness, so everyone, from communities to individual organizations to people in general, has really stepped up to help,” she said. “That’s an encouraging sign in difficult times.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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