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Pittsfield Parks Commission Begins Draft Plan to Empty City Parks
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
04:35PM / Thursday, March 18, 2021
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The Parks Commission is mullings ways to prevent homeless people from camping in city parks.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Parks Commission on Tuesday endorsed a draft plan to evacuate and prevent homeless folks from overnight camping in Pittsfield parks.  

Actions include installing new signage and increased awareness of park rules, cleaning abandoned sites and monitoring for new ones, leaving "friendly written reminders" of the overnight camping rules at sites, and circulating community reminders on the best ways to direct goodwill to those in need.

This plan will be reviewed by local service providers and the Homelessness Advisory Committee and the commission will be accepting feedback.

"I think it's important to understand that there are other others that will be reviewing this," Park, Open Space, and Natural Resource Program Manager Jim McGrath said. "We really want to make certain that there is agreement around this plan, and that everyone is so to speak, 'playing from the same rules.' So, our effort over the next several weeks is to get that input, and then to, again, bring to the commission, an update of where we're at our next meeting and subsequent meetings as we move through the spring and into the summer with updates on what we're seeing in the parks."

In the summer of 2020, an influx of folks began camping in city parks after the closing of ServiceNet's emergency COVID-19 shelter at the former St. Joseph’s High School. Because of pandemic circumstances and the closing of the shelter, the city was "compassionately tolerant" of temporary park residents.

In mid-November, the commission revoked the "compassionate tolerance" and voted to resume camping bans in city parks on December 1.

In a statement, The Parks Commission said allowing park camping was a "sufferance and courtesy" of the panel. Reportedly, its aim is to encourage folks to utilize the reopened St. Joe's shelter with temperatures dropping.

As the winter progressed, no enforcement seemed to take place and the topic was not discussed again until Tuesday’s meeting.

"At no time did the city or Parks Commission order an evacuation of encampments. In November 2020, the Parks Commission amended their earlier direction which voiced tolerance for those using city parks for sheltering during the summer, to reinstate adopted park rules effective Dec. 1, 2020," Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer said in a February email when queried about the park evacuation’s progress.

"As further directed by the Commission, city staff in cooperation with ServiceNet and other service providers worked on a one on one basis with those sheltering in city parks to help them understand why camping is not allowed in city parks as well as connecting them with the resources available to find housing. This compassionate approach is how the city has always approached those who have sheltered in city parks. As a result of this work, all but one known encampment have been removed from city parks. At this point in time, we believe this encampment is no longer being used for overnight sheltering and the individuals are working with various service providers and non-profits to secure alternative housing."

Historically, winter shelters are operated from November to May but Ruffer on Tuesday said the city has a desire to keep the St. Joe’s shelter and Christian Center warming shelter open.

The decision to empty city parks was the last straw for former Parks Commission member Joe Durwin, who resigned from the panel in November. He described the situation to iBerkshires as a "now failed decree to evict folks from the park."

"They hadn't really formulated a plan before they came forward with it," he said. "The administration internally had different interpretations of what this really meant. And enforcement."

Durwin said the commission had been dealing with the issue on a monthly basis leading up to his resignation. He views the evacuation as a narrow approach to solving the issue of homelessness that doesn’t look into all of the complexities of why these people chose to live outside over entering the shelter.

"I think the initial discussion brought to our attention that we didn't really have any kind of substantial written policy on what to do in these situations, which was kind of shocking. Since before I was even on the commission, I was coming to them with pictures of the shelters that people were chopping down trees to make and there was just denial, I think through many administrations that there was homelessness in Pittsfield," he said in regard to the commission's handling of park campers.

"There are constitutional problems with creating or enforcing any kind of policies that criminalize homelessness and poverty. So, I think, it was sort of, to me, a no-brainer that we're not going to kick people out that have nowhere to go, that seems just non-negotiable. And then I was surprised to see that it kind of gradually became negotiable."

Durwin said he hopes the panel grows in their understanding of the situation and that there won’t be a direct repeat of it. He remains in opposition of a person being forcibly evicted from any city property and hopes to see an improved response to homelessness in the city as well as better collaboration between organizations, the community, and the city.

Disclosure: Joe Durwin is a freelance writer for iBerkshires.

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