Homelessness prevalent in Amherst area

By Katie Landeck

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Twenty-nine people showed up at Craig’s Doors – a homeless shelter in the basement of the First Baptist Church in Amherst – on Nov. 4 to fill 16 beds. These people were ragged, tired, cold and in  need of a meal and a place to sleep. Of those people, 11 of them had to find another place to spend the night.

Homelessness and poverty are growing problems in Amherst according to a report issued by the Amherst Survival Center which said since 2007 there has been a 41 percent increase in the number of families that used their services.

“When we [Craig’s Doors] are not open in Amherst, there is nothing in Amherst,” said Laura Quinn, the executive director of Craig’s Doors. “A big question that we get is where are these people from? Where do they live? It is geographical. You can frame it within a relatively defined area, but why would you be somewhere that you don’t have the resources?”

Every night, the homeless that stand on the steps waiting for the doors to open at 9:30 p.m. – sometimes a little earlier if it is really cold out and no parish groups are using the basement – come from all over the Pioneer Valley. Some have lived their entire lives in Amherst, some are from the cities such as Holyoke and Springfield and other come from as far away as Ware, which is 20 miles from the First Baptist Church.

When they crowd inside, there is a rush as people toss their bags on the 16 collapsible cots set up just minutes before by shelter staff. Then, they gather around the equally collapsible folding table for a dinner of sandwiches, soup and salad.

“That’s all they really want,” said Quinn. “They don’t want the lasagna dinner, they just want a sandwich and something warm.”

At Craig’s Doors, everyone gets fed regardless of if they will be allowed to spend the night. While the guests eat, director of programs Kevin Noonan on overcrowded nights such as Nov. 4, sits in the corner with a binder with all of the local homeless shelters and an old corded phone. He methodically goes down his list calling to see who has space. The next closest shelter is in Northampton. After that, guests will need to find transportation to either Holyoke or Springfield.

“It’s first come, first serve, but we will hold a bed until 9 p.m. for someone who was here the night before” said shelter manager Dan Moya while looking around the room. “There is no way we can house this many people.”

While the shelter staff try to find housing for everyone and greet guests that keep trickling in, the guests chat by themselves around the table.

A shelter regular, Mary Vozkurt, who has been coming to the shelter since it opened as a warming shelter in 2009, sits in the middle of the table – her long black hair wound into tight, matted Princess Leia-like buns. She animatedly chats with everyone about his or her day, but can’t seem to follow the conservation, frequently drifting out of the conversation.

“I have problems. I can’t help that I am homeless. I have real issues,” said Vozkurt.

It’s a bad night for her, according to Quinn who said the Vozkurt suffers from mental illness, as do several other guests at the shelter.

Mental illness is not the only thing plaguing the shelter guests. Many, such as Julian Munn, have criminal records that prevent them from accessing low income housing.

“I can’t get housing. Every time, I fill out a form and get close, they do a CORI check, and I don’t get it,” said Munn.

Munn lost his apartment in early November after losing the keys and having a dispute with his landlord. For a few days, he tried to live with his girlfriend, but felt the apartment was too small for the two of them so he opted to live in shelters.

“This is place is crowded though,” he said. “I think they should have some stipulations for who can stay here. This is a stepping place for people in emergency situations.”

He hopes to be able to rent a place in Greenfield with his girlfriend by Dec. 9.

Unlike other area shelters, Craig’s Doors has a behavioral based policy according to Quinn. Therefore, the shelter does not administer a breathalyzer tests or require guests to pass any other tests. As long as they can be civil towards the workers and each other, they can spend the night.

“We operate differently,” said Quinn.

The permit for the seasonal shelter, which is open from November until the end of April, will expire after the next shelter season. However, since the shelter opened, the Committee on Homelessness, who originally established the shelter, was disbanded by the Amherst Select board, causing some to fear the permit will be renewed.

“I think it is suspicious that they disbanded the Committee before the shelter permit was renewed,” said former member of the Committee on Homelessness Reikka Simula, who held one of the two positions reserved for people who are or have been homeless. “There is a Committee for Veterans and a Committee for Seniors, so why shouldn’t there be a Committee for Homelessness?”

The Committee was disbanded by the Select Board for failing to fulfill their charge, as the Select Board felt the Committee was not working with the town and created problems.

The issue was discussed at Town Meeting last Wednesday when Simula, as well as former Select Board member Hwei-Ling Greeney, proposed an article advising the Select Board to reinstate a Committee on Homelessness.

The article was voted down by a count of 65 to 60. Instead of a Committee on Homelessness, the Select Board will create a Housing and Sheltering Committee that according to its charge will focus on renewing the permit for the shelter and creating affordable housing.

“We view this as a step forward,” said Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe, who spoke against passing the article on homelessness at the Town Meeting.

“We talked a lot about what the town’s responsibilities were, and we thought this was the best use of our resources and really the town’s place,” she said.

However, this isn’t enough for Simula who describes herself as “not homeless, but definitely displaced,” as she has been living out of her car since the snowstorm put three large holes in the roof of the hunting cabin she had been living in.

“A Committee of Homelessness would have been able to focus more on the homeless issue,” said Simula. “Most of the people [on the former committee] either worked with homeless issue or had been homeless.  The new committee doesn’t have the insight on homelessness and I think they don’t understand the people’s lives our hanging in the balance. It is an everyday issue.”

From now until Nov. 18 is National Homelessness week. To recognize this MassPirg is organizing several events to educate people including “Fighting Poverty at Home and Abroad: A Training” tonight at 6 p.m. in Hasbrouck, a movie screening of “The Soloist” on Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. in the Campus Center,  a “Faces of Homelessness Panel” Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. in Herter and a Canned Goods Drive Nov. 19 in the Homeless Center.

To volunteer at Craig’s Doors, people should contact Quinn by sending an email to [email protected]

Katie Landeck can be reached at [email protected]