Out cold: homelessness during winter

By Aviva Luttrell

Aviva Luttrell/Collegian

They’re tired, poor, huddled and right outside.

For a community that’s buzzing with youth and academics, the Pioneer Valley also has a diverse – though not unnoticed – homeless population. Last year, 161 low-income individuals sought refuge at Craig’s Place, a seasonal emergency shelter in Amherst.

But in temperatures that dip to single-digits, living on the street can become a game of life and death.

“We did have someone who died on the street in Northampton during this cold spell,” said Maria Yorgakopoulou, a graduate student in the University of Massachusetts’ comparative literature department who also serves as the head of kitchen at Craig’s Place. “This was the first time in a bunch of years that had happened and it really affected the guests. It really affected us all.”

Craig’s Doors, the non-profit human services agency that operates Craig’s Place in the basement of the First Baptist Church on North Pleasant Street, is struggling to accommodate guests in a time of increased demand.

Operating from Nov. 1 to April 30, Craig’s Place provides 22 beds for overnight shelter. It also provides dinner and breakfast and a medical clinic to its homeless guests during its operational hours each day from 9:30 p.m. to 8 a.m.

As the only shelter in Hampshire County that accepts people who may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Kevin Noonan, executive director of Craig’s Doors, said the shelter’s policy encourages harm reduction by enforcing behavior-based admission, meaning that all who are respectful of others are welcome.

While guests are not allowed to bring drugs, alcohol or weapons inside the building, Noonan said he does not believe in discriminating against them because of past problems.

“Being a drug addict or alcoholic shouldn’t be a death sentence,” Noonan said.


Surviving an Amherst winter


Tattered clothes, cardboard signs and a Dunkin’ Donuts cup filled with change are tools to battle the cold among the homeless in Northampton, who survive off donations from passersby.

Two weeks ago, Mount Holyoke junior Susanna Holmstrom sang on a sidewalk with the hope of encouraging those walking by to take notice of her friend, Christopher Barcomb, who was sitting pretzel-style beside her, holding a sign that read: “Homeless, no food.”

Barcomb, who became homeless this past summer, is facing his first winter on the streets with a hopeful attitude.

“It’s cold when you get up, but once you get under the blankets, it’s fine,” Barcomb said. “Once it dips below zero, it gets a little cold, but it’s livable.”

Receiving gifts ranging from a trash bag full of clothes to an old sleeping bag, Barcomb said the generosity of strangers is welcoming.

“I’m pretty much just trying to get back on my feet,” Barcomb said. “I didn’t expect to be out here this long.”

Poor health can also present obstacles for homeless people unable to find shelter.

Ben Boliver, an aspiring hip-hop artist who often goes by the alias “General Blaze,” has severe diabetes and no place to call home.

“Living outside has been kind of rough,” Boliver said. “I was in the hospital when we had those really cold temperatures the week before this past week.”

After getting kicked out of a shelter after he was alleged to be involved in an altercation, Boliver relies on help from his friends to find a place to sleep, but doesn’t typically socialize with other homeless people to avoid getting tangled up in unnecessary drama.

Barcomb echoed Boliver, citing a certain level of competition in a dog-eat-dog living situation.

“We usually tend to avoid each other,” Barcomb said. “We’re all out here trying to make a living, so it’s easier when you’re a loner. When every dollar counts, you’ve got to do your own thing to make sure you have enough to eat.”


Craig’s Place prepares


As a result of this past weekend’s winter storm, Craig’s Place has been feeling the competition for shelter first hand.

While the shelter is normally allowed to maintain 22 beds per night, a temporary occupancy permit was issued on Friday by town officials, which allowed Craig’s Place to house 34 guests that night.

Often on particularly cold nights, the shelter will fill up and Noonan is left with one option – giving individuals a sandwich, a blanket and sending them on their way.   “We try to send (guests) to other area shelters, but often when the weather gets cold, there are no openings in the area,” Noonan said. “We don’t want to do that to anyone, but often there is no other choice.”

With an increase in homeless women, an additional living space for women has placed a necessary financial toll on Craig’s Place, according to Yorgakopoulou.

“It’s a tighter budget,” Yorgakopoulou said. “We have more needs in terms of people who are coming because we increased by 44 percent between volunteers, staff and the clients.”

In a fiscal squeeze, Craig’s Doors is uncertain if it will receive any funding for the upcoming year after a change in Amherst’s population statistics decreased the federal cash flow.

Since the town lost its Mini-Entitlement status[1] , which guaranteed funding between five different social service agencies, including Craig’s Doors, the organization will now have to enter a general pool, Noonan said. This will make securing necessary funds more competitive.

With a $125,000 price tag to run the shelter over a six-month period, Noonan said he hopes that the state will be willing to give the town some transition money to adjust to a 10 percent loss of funding at the state level.

Meanwhile, for the homeless still on the street, life goes on.

“I’m a little more determined, a little more appreciative,” Barcomb said. “A lot of people don’t realize, when they’re in a tough spot, how much friends and family help them until they don’t have it. I view things quite a bit different now, not only for myself, but for others as well.”


Peter Cappiello can be reached at [email protected]

Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected].