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Amherst wrestles with burgeoning homeless population

Amherst wrestles with impact of burgeoning homeless population

  • Vladimir Morales, president of the Puerto Rican Association of Amherst, talks Wednesday afternoon about how he intends to bring homeless issues before the Select Board in Amherst. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Though unoccupied Wednesday night, two women were found sleeping at this Bank of America walk-in ATM, Tuesday night, at 1 South Pleasant St. in Amherst. JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Bank of America on South Pleasant street Wednesday afternoon in Amherst. Homeless people have been loitering to stay warm or to sleep at ATMs throughout downtown. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Vladimir Morales, president of the Puerto Rican Association of Amherst, talks Wednesday afternoon about how he intends to bring homeless issues before the Select Board in Amherst. DAN LITTLE

  • Steven Aoki, supervisor at Antonio's pizza shop, talks Wednesday about homeless issues in Amherst. DAN LITTLE

  • CVS Pharmacy on North Pleasant Street in Amherst is one popular spot for people to hang out, with a large patio overlooking the street and a bench to sit on. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Vladimir Morales, president of the Puerto Rican Association of Amherst, talks Wednesday afternoon about how he intends to bring homeless issues before the Select Board in Amherst. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Though unoccupied Wednesday night, two women were found sleeping at this Bank of America walk-in ATM, Tuesday night, at 1 South Pleasant Street in Amherst. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • 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. JERREY ROBERTS—

Staff Writer
Published: 4/6/2016 11:08:47 PM

AMHERST — On a late March afternoon, just before many diners arrived to eat at downtown Amherst restaurants, an altercation involving two homeless people left a woman, who was apparently intoxicated, with injuries to her face after she fell to the ground in front of a popular downtown pizza place.

“That heated argument happened right in front of the store,” said Steven Aoki, a supervisor at Antonio’s, 31 North Pleasant St.

Recalling the March 21 fight in full view of staff and customers at the restaurant, Aoki said it is representative of an increase in the “very drunk, very boisterous homeless people” who are seemingly attracted to Amherst for its homeless shelter, which gives guests under the influence of alcohol or drugs a place to stay.

“For the most part, that’s not a terrible thing,” said Aoki, observing that Amherst is a compassionate community. “It does cause some direct problems. There will be some very drunken homeless customers who come in and then cause a scene, more or less.”

Such behavior, though, is prompting the Amherst Business Improvement District to begin conversations with representatives from Craig’s Doors, the agency that runs the Craig’s Place homeless shelter, as well as Police Chief Scott Livingstone and Community Services Director Julie Federman, to find ways to deal with the apparent increase in the number of homeless people in town.

‘Starting a dialogue’

Sarah la Cour, executive director of the Amherst BID, said she is interested in having conversations and learning about different perspectives in the coming months.

“It gives us time to talk about what our options are for next fall and starting a dialogue about what has brought on these changes,” la Cour said.

Some of the problems began in late winter, when some of the homeless people downtown became more hostile, la Cour said.

“There have been more, and they are a little bit more confrontational and aggressive,” la Cour said.

Craig’s Doors Executive Director Rebekah Wilder said she knows many of the guests who come to the shelter suffer from mental illness and have challenging life stories.

“There have been people getting upset about a couple of individuals in town who have caused trouble, and I get that,” Wilder said. “I wish people, when they saw them, would not focus on the fact they are homeless, but that they are people.”

There have been changes in the dynamics of guests this winter, with seven people recently being banned from the shelter because of misbehavior, she said. There are also more people using the shelter from outside the Amherst area, and about 10 women staying each night, more than doubling the average in previous years, according to Wilder.

But Wilder said there is no intention to change the facility from being a wet shelter. While guests cannot bring alcohol or drugs inside with them, consuming liquor or narcotics prior to arrival will not deny their entry.

“Just because they’re struggling with that, they don’t deserve to die,” Wilder said.

Craig’s Place will remain open through the night of April 30.

Business climate

The effects of more homeless people on the business climate is not easy to measure, though it is likely a negative impact, according to business leaders.

“The last thing we need in Amherst is anything that makes (downtown) a less pleasant environment,” said Jerry Guidera, interim executive director at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

“As a chamber we support the principle of offering support to everyone in the community, but as a member organization of businesses it’s in our interest to make sure it’s friendly for all families who visit here,” Guidera said.

Adam Lussier, who runs Zanna clothing store, 187 North Pleasant St., said customers may make “subconscious” adjustments to their habits if they encounter more homeless people.

“When you have a homeless presence, it has a greater effect on the mindset,” Lussier said.

La Cour said some people may fear coming to downtown because of the number of homeless people. “Their presence is difficult for people, in some cases,” la Cour said.

She said she appreciates police officers doing what they can to ensure public safety.

In recent days, police have responded several times to ATMs throughout downtown where homeless people have been loitering to stay warm or to sleep. That included Tuesday night, when two women who were found in the Bank of America, 1 South Pleasant St., told officers they no longer wanted to stay at the shelter “and are seeking alternative places to stay in town.”

La Cour said it is difficult to prevent access to ATMs because the 24-hour service is part of the business practice for banks.

CVS Pharmacy, 76 North Pleasant St., is also a popular spot for people to hang out, with a large patio overlooking the street and a bench to sit on. On Tuesday afternoon, a man caused a scene inside the store when he sought free hypodermic needles to use heroin. He fled before officers got there.

La Cour said she has instructed the Amherst BID cleanup crew, which includes former homeless shelter guests, to make cleaning the patio near CVS a priority. On Wednesday afternoon, the area was clear and no debris was seen near the bench.

More street people

Hwei-Ling Greeney runs the One-Stop Resources Center of Amherst Community Connections at the Unitarian Universalist Society. Greeney confirmed that there are more people are on the street during the day, which she attributes to more beds available at the shelter at night.

Craig’s Place has 22 beds, but often can go over that number during extremely cold weather. Greeney said it is increasingly attractive for people using drugs and alcohol, and there is also no cap on how long guests can stay. This means there is less incentive for people to try to get back on their feet, she said.

Options for transitioning from shelter life to housing, though, are limited, Greeney said.

“No matter how much we do, without the housing piece you’re asking for trouble,” Greeney said. “My feeling is the housing piece needs to be in tandem with an increase in the shelter capacity.”

One resident who intends to bring the homeless issue before the Select Board is Vladimir Morales, the president of the Puerto Rican Association of Amherst and a former School Committee member.

Walking on the street Wednesday afternoon, Morales said he notices the homeless daily between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. — and argues that the town can do better for them.

“I see everyone walking around with their bags, and I’m seeing fights,” Morales said.

Morales is assisting a homeless man who works as a machinist, but even that skilled labor is not enough to get him to a job.

That’s the plight many are facing who are attracted to Amherst for the shelter, he said.

“It’s a place you can go in and then there’s not an exit,” Morales said.

Both la Cour and Guidera said there needs to be a holistic approach, with the shelter playing its role, alongside social service agencies, churches and the police.

Wilder said she would like to see the public support legislation that will ensure more detox beds are available in the area.

In addition, she hopes with a site director hired late in the season that the shelter will run more smoothly when it reopens in November.

For the last month or so, the trailer where Craig’s Doors was serving meals in the early evening shut down because college student volunteers were no longer available.

“We will be strategizing this summer on how to fund the right staff, so if we have student staff that we won’t have days that won’t be covered,” Wilder said.

Wilder said she would like to see business owners and visitors show courtesy to any homeless people they encounter.

“The key is respect,” Wilder said. “Ninety percent of the time at the shelter, individuals when spoken to with respect, they give respect back.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.




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