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Pittsfield Shelter at Methodist Church on the Horizon
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
02:43AM / Monday, February 22, 2021
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — As the city moves further in 2021, local advocates are working to resolve social issues of the past year, and many years before.

First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street is hoping to welcome guests to its new homeless shelter in April. The 40-bed facility will be administered by ServiceNet, which currently runs the emergency COVID-19 shelter at the former St. Joseph's High School.

"We're expecting that ServiceNet will start to occupy the space in about April 1, that they will then give notice to the owner of the Barton's Crossing building and locate their entire operation in a new shelter," the Rev. Ralph Howe said. "[Barton's Crossing] looks OK from the outside but it is an old building, and it's old equipment, and so they're happy to be moving on."

Though homelessness in Pittsfield was not new to 2020, it was exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In September, Pittsfield planners approved the shelter's location in the churcch after an approval delay and a lengthy amount of conditions. It was originally aimed to open early this year, but regulatory delay and the onslaught of the COVID-19 surge slowed the process.

Howe explained that the completion bid papers done by the project's architect were just finished, so the bid for completion work will go out shortly.

"It's all pretty much finished ready," he said. "They brought in a new line for the sprinkler system and all sorts of massive plumbing, and then bathrooms and laundry have to be installed. You know, finish work, putting the floors down, hanging the doors and all that kind of stuff. So, they should get back the bids on that within about a month."

At the same time, the city granted the church $100,000 for the project. Using this grant, all of the labor has to unionized, which Howe said is good, but on the downside, the organization also has to prove it has the funds secured to complete the project.

The first source of funding came in an appropriation from the commonwealth in December 2019, which was spent by June 2020.

Howe doesn't have an exact number for the ultimate cost of the shelter.  He said the church has contributed some money as well as other donors, resulting in more than $100,000.

"So that $200,000 is in and then $100,000, so they're not completely sure how much it's going to cost over that," he said. "That's why getting the bids back will clarify how much we have to get, and then they'll be going to funders. It's probably, I don't know. $50[000] to $75,000 more."

Since coming to Pittsfield around 2011, Howe said, ServiceNet has been looking for a building to satisfy the needs of a shelter because of the current one's poor condition. First Methodist is a small congregation with a large building suitable for inhabitants and has an interest in helping the community, so it was able to work out an agreement that benefits both the church and ServiceNet.

First Methodist will be paid $70,000 annually by ServiceNet and will be responsible for the costs of heating, lighting, and water. Howe hopes that the church has a net earning of around $60,000, which he said is in line with long-term viability for a church with a building.

Howe said the conversion was easy, as the church is made of concrete, brick, and steel with existing amenities such as an elevator, ground floor entrance, and plenty of bathrooms.

With funding from a congregation member who had passed, the church also will be building a new handicapped entrance.

"Pittsfield does not have a year-round emergency shelter," he said "And it provides a service that only provides emergency shelter in the cold weather because they get special funding for that."

Howe is retiring at the end of June but hopes that he will be in the company of his congregation at least once before that date. In the meantime, the church has been doing virtual services aired on Youtube.

"I miss worship, I'm a pastor but I love worship, I love being able to be with people and sing and praise," he said. "Now, we can seat 1,100 people, so there's plenty of room for 70 or 100 people to fit in that space but you can't sing, and I don't know if you know much about Methodists, but we always sing!"

Beginning July 1, the Rev. Marcelo Gomes will take Howe's place at the church. Gomes is coming from Lee United Methodist Church in Norwich, Conn., and holds degrees in psychoanalysis, theology, and education. Currently, he is writing his dissertation for the doctor of ministry program at Boston University and has more than 15 years of experience in church planning and revitalization.

Howe is excited for what Gomes' education will bring to the table and feels that he is a suitable successor who will keep strong ties in the community.

"I'm very happy for the congregation," he said. "I think they'll have a wonderful leadership who will keep them oriented to the community."

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