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New task force forms to tackle homelessness

GREENFIELD — “The best solution to homelessness is housing,” according to a group that plans to tackle the issue in Greenfield and other Franklin County towns over the next few months or years.

The task force, as Mayor William Martin calls it, which formed late last year, is hoping to find a way to eventually provide the housing needed to put an end to what it calls a “growing problem.”

The group consists of the mayor and several heads of local social services agencies. It first met last November to start looking at the homeless problem in Franklin County, especially in Greenfield.

Martin said the reason for the focus on Greenfield is that it is where most services to homeless are located, so that’s where they congregate.

Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action and a member of the group, said she thinks it is a really good group of people working together on a common cause.

“I want to thank the mayor for coming to the table and wanting to be a part of this,” said Higgins, a former mayor herself, of Northampton. “This is a very important issue.”

Pamela Schwartz, director of Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, which helps create collaboratives to end homelessness throughout the area through a “housing first” approach, said the homeless coalition will act as facilitator and provide support to the group.

The group includes the mayor, Community Action, ServiceNet, Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Greenfield Housing Authority, Franklin Regional Council of Governments, and the Interfaith Council of Franklin County. ServiceNet runs homeless shelters in the county as well as other social service programs with state and federal funding.

Schwartz said the task force will be looking at socio-economic and housing issues, as well as what the homeless need and where they need it.

“Later, the group will develop a timeline and the strategies to get there,” said Schwartz.

John Counter, executive director of the Greenfield Housing Authority, said the group has agreed to concentrate on three main areas.

“We’ll look at whether housing authorities in Franklin County can set aside a certain number of units for the homeless, do an assessment of how many more affordable units are needed in Franklin County and where, and find out what state resources are being under-utilized,” said Counter.

He said the homeless crisis in Massachusetts is “beyond any of us,” but said that he’s glad to see it is being addressed locally.

“One of the things we’ll have to talk about is that with new affordable housing will have to come massive amounts of support for people,” said Counter. “The bulk of homeless people are chronically homeless, and they need so much more assistance to become sustainable, even living in public housing units.”

Schwartz said the forming of the group did not happen in response to the governor’s recent announcements about the state eliminating its temporary placement of the homeless in hotels and motels within a couple of years, or his pledge for 10,000 new affordable dwellings across the state each year for the next 10 years.

She said shelters and hotels, because of the limits to what they can provide people, are not the solution to homelessness. She said the group will not be talking about creating more shelters, but rather getting people out of them permanently.

“The group formed because there is a problem locally, and people want to find ways to fix that problem,” she said.

Schwartz said most homeless people will relocate to the place in their area where there are the most services, because they have no way to get around.

Robin Sherman, executive director of Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority in Turners Falls, said the group will meet monthly.

“We’ve met three times,” she said. “We’ve been sharing our general concerns and will be working closely with each other to collect the information we need to move forward.”

Sherman said that includes data, which will be collected by the FRCOG over the next several months.

According to FRCOG Executive Director Linda Dunlavy, the council plans to gather data on how many homeless people there are in Franklin County, and how many new or renovated units would be needed to accommodate them.

“We haven’t even created the scope of work yet, because we are in the very early stages,” said Dunlavy. “We’re hoping eventually to come up with some sort of number, so the group has something to work with as it moves forward. We’ll be educating each other on current conditions. That will help us understand where we are headed.”

She said FRCOG will pay for the assessment and analysis it is about to do with grant money from the Department of Housing and Community Development.

“We have a grant that we are supposed to use to focus on housing needs,” said Dunlavy. “This is perfect timing.”

Sherman said the group will also be looking at where the county’s current homeless are getting services from, and what kind of services they are receiving.

“Then, we’ll be looking at short- and long-term solutions,” she said.

Once the group has agreed on solutions, it will shift its focus to strategies and implementation, she said.

“This isn’t a problem limited to Greenfield, but it’s a good place to start,” said Sherman.

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