Craig’s Place director, staff announce resignations in Amherst 

  • Staff at Craig's Place in Amherst practice setting up cots during a training session at the shelter in 2016. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2019 11:43:34 PM

AMHERST — The seasonal homeless shelter Craig’s Place is at risk of not opening later this year after its three full-time staff members announced this week that they are resigning. Meanwhile, a year-round resource center for homeless people associated with the shelter is expected to close at the end of July.

Executive Director Jade Lovett and Kerry Brock and Aidan Novo, the managers for Craig’s Place shelter at the First Baptist Church and its neighboring resource center, issued a statement Monday that they are leaving their jobs at the end of this month because the board of directors did not meet a series of demands they say are necessary to improve operations.

“This decision is not one we take lightly, and has come after months of negotiations with the board of directors and years of efforts to make the organization more sustainable,” the trio wrote. “It is unfortunate that our time here is ending in this manner, but it is now more important than ever that the town supports and invests in behavior-based programs, harm-reduction efforts, affordable housing and other models proven to resolve issues surrounding homelessness.”

The departures mean that the resource center, which is in a trailer in a Massachusetts Avenue parking lot behind the 434 North Pleasant St. church, will close, forcing people who depend on its services, including receiving mail and storing personal belongings, to find alternative arrangements. The resource center and seasonal shelter operate under the nonprofit Craig’s Doors: A Home Association Inc.

Whether the shelter will be able to open on time is also uncertain. With 28 beds, Craig’s Place is the only behavior-based shelter in Hampshire County, which means guests can be under the influence of drugs or alcohol and still be able to stay out of the elements.

Board scrambling

Gerry Weiss, president of the Craig’s Doors board, acknowledged that operations, which the organization has run since being selected by the town in fall 2011, are in jeopardy, as it will take time to find experienced employees who can replace those departing.

“We’re scrambling and talking to other state and local providers,” Weiss said. “Our goal is to get the shelter open and the resource center open. That’s all the board is focused on.”

The board issued a statement expressing disappointment at losing dedicated staff, but added that it remains committed to the mission of providing shelter to homeless men and women.

“We have already begun the process of hiring new staff, and are confident that we will find equally capable and dedicated individuals who will help us to continue our mission to shelter the most vulnerable among us during the worst months of the year,” the board stated.

The issues surrounding the Craig’s Doors operations began when Lovett, Brock and Novo sent a letter to the board June 5 with demands that included:

■Removing Jerald Gates, owner of the Echo Village Corp. and property manager for the First Baptist Church, as a member of the Craig’s Doors board, due to what they described as a “conflict of interest that is inherently unethical.”

■Drafting a new contract between Craig’s Doors and the church.

■Developing a strategic fundraising plan.

■Writing a clear set of bylaws for the organization.

■ Recruiting new members to serve on the board, with an expectation that one new member would be found by Aug. 1 and interviews scheduled with other potential members.

Weiss, the board’s president, said he appreciated that the demands were necessary but impossible to meet in less than two months

“I was very optimistic when I got the letter that we’d be able to accomplish a lot,” Weiss said. “The list of demands, I believe, are quite reasonable, however I believe the timeline is quite unrealistic.”

Since June, the board did have Gates step down as its president, though he remains on the board.

“We feel we dug in and did what we could get done,” Weiss said.

Although a seven- to nine-member board would be ideal, Weiss said, the board still has only four people, including residents Jim Lumley and Denise Barberet.

Lovett said she and her colleagues would have been more flexible in their self-imposed deadline if they had seen progress in ending dysfunction that has made the work more difficult.

“We believed our requests to be reasonable within the given time frame of two months,” Lovett said. “This is partially because some of those documents, such as a set of bylaws and a strategic plan, should have already been created.”

Funding challenges

Craig’s Doors operations have largely been supported by a $200,000 line item in the state budget, put there by former Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, but this was cut by $25,000 last year. Shelter Sunday in the fall has been a way to raise additional money, but not enough to make the situation comfortable, according to the organization.

“We knew as a board that we had to step up fundraising and find new board members,” Weiss said.

Despite the challenges, Weiss said he feels like both the shelter, which has run Nov. 1 to April 30, and the resource center have been running well. He points to a housing program in which Craig’s Doors pays a portion of rent assistance through a state grant so six individuals can live in three apartments.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he is in conversations with Weiss and is aware of the significant changes that are taking place, calling the shelter a “very important need for the town.”

“It’s very important to not only the town of Amherst, but to the entire region,” Bockelman said.

Weiss said he isn’t sure whether more funding and better pay and good benefits could have helped the staff push through some of the difficulties. “It’s a tough job these people do for very low pay,” Weiss said.

Lovett said salaries were only one consideration.

“Working conditions and fair compensation were important factors, but these were just symptoms of the core issues we named in our letters and hoped the board would address,” Lovett said.

All three staff members intend to continue to help vulnerable people, with Lovett and Brock both expected to leave the Pioneer Valley to pursue jobs in the medical and social services fields, while Novo is heading to graduate school this fall.

Lovett said she is certain that the shelter and resource center will be in a better place because of this push.

“We have confidence that if the board steps up to the plate by completing these requests and addressing the issues that have troubled the organization for years, new staff could be hired to run the shelter by the fall,” Lovett said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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