Emergency homeless shelter to open at First Churches of Northampton

  • Bill Holloway, left, chairman of the property committee at First Churches of Northampton, and church administrator Melinda Shaw, right, work with a piano mover in the parlor to make room for the women’s sleeping quarters at the new homeless shelter Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bill Holloway, chair of the property committee at First Churches of Northampton, works in Lyman Hall at the church preparing for modifications to make it, the adjoining parlor and a recreation room downstairs into a new homeless shelter on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. Earlier in the day, volunteers covered the hardwood floor of Lyman Hall, which will become the shelter’s common area, with a protective layer of ram board, a roll paper that repels water but lets the wood breathe. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bill Holloway, chair of the property committee at First Churches of Northampton, looks over the men’s restroom downstairs at the church where plumbing to accommodate an additional sink will be installed in the next week. Photographed on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. The adjoining recreation room will accommodate the men’s sleeping quarters. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Rev. Todd Weir stands in the room at First Churches of Northampton that will be used as a homeless shelter. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rev. Todd Weir stands in the room at First Churches of Northampton that will be used as a homeless shelter. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/24/2020 8:29:30 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Two days before Thanksgiving, the Rev. Todd Weir, co-pastor at First Churches of Northampton, was sitting near the altar in his church, talking about people in the city with no place to sleep.

“As the crunch is on for beds, we’re noticing there’s more people around the building,” Weir said Tuesday. “It just breaks my heart to see people sleeping outside when we have room.”

Soon, at least some of those people will be able to sleep in an emergency shelter, which is set to open inside the church next week. First Churches currently is finalizing a lease of the space to ServiceNet that would go until May 1.

Both the Grove Street Inn and the Interfaith Emergency Shelter, run by ServiceNet, are currently open at partial capacity due to COVID-19. Because of the limited capacity at both shelters, they are not serving as many people as they would in a typical November. Once the new emergency shelter opens, there will be 45 beds available there and at Grove Street Inn, combined (Interfaith will close). That’s a typical winter capacity for the organization, said Jay Sacchetti, senior vice president of Shelter and Housing at ServiceNet.

“This is a vital community effort that has a huge impact on our neighbors who are homeless,” Sacchetti said in a statement from the city released on Tuesday afternoon.

Funding for the shelter comes from the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Sacchetti.

The shelter will open by Dec. 4, and staff will be there 24/7, according to the city’s statement. Residents, volunteers and shelter staff will be tested for COVID-19 before they first come to the shelter, and later they will be regularly screened, according to the statement.

“ServiceNet is urgently in need of staff to support the emergency shelter and is hiring. If you or anyone you know is interested in this critical work, please visit www.servicenet.org/job,” the statement reads. The city is also looking for volunteers to help, and information can be found at www.northamptonma.gov/volunteersubmission.

First Churches had been talking with ServiceNet about a shelter for several weeks, according to Weir. The congregation voted on Sunday 44-1 to lease the space to ServiceNet. As it happens, on Sunday, one of the Bible readings, which is predetermined by the Revised Common Lectionary, read “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me … ”

There couldn’t be a clearer sign, Weir said.

Part of what makes it possible for the church to open the shelter is that all services are being held online.

“We’ve been all online since March,” Weir said.

In pre-pandemic times, outside groups, including advocacy organizations, singing ensembles and others used the church’s space, Weir said. Amid the pandemic, only 12-step recovery programs and a food pantry have been provided space in the church.

“I think people are wondering, why didn’t this happen sooner?” said Weir, who is also on the board of Friends of Hampshire County Homeless.

Quarantine, isolation site

Also on Tuesday, the city announced that there will be an isolation and quarantine shelter in a location to be determined in western Massachusetts.

Marylou Sudders, secretary of Massachusetts Health and Human Services, and Samantha Phillips, director of Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, told a group of mayors, town managers and social service agencies that they have committed to opening a shelter in western Massachusetts, according to the city’s statement.

Currently, if someone tests positive for COVID-19 in western Massachusetts and is experiencing homelessness or has nowhere to stay, they may need to travel more than 100 miles to find a state-run isolation and quarantine hotel in Everett, which is in the eastern part of the state.

A regional site was temporarily opened at the Quality Inn & Suites, 117 Conz St., last spring. It had a capacity of 63 beds, but never had more than 20 people using it at a time, a spokesperson for the COVID-19 Response Command Center said in a statement earlier this month.

“We have been transporting individuals and families from Western Mass to the Everett hotel 7 days a week since the Northampton site closed,” the COVID-19 Response Command Center spokesperson said.

Regional mayors and town administrators have been asking the state to reopen an isolation and quarantine shelter in one of the state’s westernmost counties. Neither the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency nor the COVID-19 Response Command Center were immediately available Tuesday afternoon for comment.

“The fact that there will be a nearby isolation and quarantine shelter for those who need it will help tremendously in giving confidence to our shelter residents to participate in our testing program knowing there is an alternative site for them locally should they test positive,” Northampton Health Department Director Merridith O’Leary said in the statement.

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


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