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Casting a light on Common’s homeless

  • People gather on the Greenfield Common Thursday in Greenfield. RECORDER STAFF/PAUL FRANZ



For the Recorder
Friday, August 10, 2018

GREENFIELD — The number of tents is dwindling. The cache of donated water bottles, toiletries and blankets is being packed or abandoned. And an uncertain future looms large.

The homeless people who have camped on the Greenfield Common this summer say they are pavers, restaurant workers, prospective Army recruits and pet owners who have lived in an uneasy balance of friendship and antagonism. Yet, many agree that, despite being at the center of a recent public debate about the homeless and their camp on the Common, they are still harshly judged and misunderstood.

“There are a lot of wrong ideas about us in the community,” said a man, 50, who gave his name as just Bill and said he works as a dishwasher at Applebee’s.

His neighbor on the Common, a shirtless young man with a blond goatee who asked to be identified as George, agreed. “Yes, I’ve made some bad decisions. But I’m not a dirtbag.”

On Wednesday evening, their futures changed when the Greenfield Board of Health voted to clear the Common of homeless residents, citing state health law, after weeks of public conversation that sometimes pitted the interests of the city’s residents, merchants, social services agencies and government against each other, putting a spotlight on the issue of homelessness in Greenfield, the seat of the poorest county in the state.

Michael Natalie came to Greenfield last fall after living in Holyoke, where he says he began using heroin after years of addiction to painkillers. A native of south Florida, he moved north a year ago because he thought there would be better treatment options for him here. He said he works as a paver six days a week for a company he declined to name.

“I was living out in the woods by the river, but I got kicked out by the police,” Natalie said. “I had no tent, so I went to the Dumpster by the furniture warehouse at Wells and Main, and I took the plastic used to wrap sofas. I was really sick from the heroin, throwing up all the time, but we all got a will to survive out here,” he said. “Before we had tents, we just wrapped ourselves in blankets and plastic for insulation and slept on more blankets on the ground.”

The tents that have sprung up on the Common, Natalie said, were donated by a social service agency and people from the community who drove by and dropped them off. He described his routine as long days of hard work followed by a “shower at the YMCA, and then I crash so I can go to work in the morning.”

Bill, the Applebee’s dishwasher, described living in his car, a Toyota Camry, for two years until it broke down and he couldn’t afford to fix it, so he took to the streets to live.

“If we could get a break on moving in someplace and pay off the security deposit, an extra $50 a month, we could afford to at least put a down payment on a room. But it’s hard. I’m trying to save $1,500 for a down payment, hopefully on an apartment,” he said. “And many of us don’t have recent references to give to landlords.

Before Applebee’s, he says, he worked an overnight shift at the McDonald’s on the Mohawk Trail, walking to work and back every night from the Common.

“The town is split 50-50,” Bill said. “Fifty percent hate us and 50 percent try to help. The community has been pouring in donations, but some people still harass us. They sit on the corner here and blow their horns in the middle of the night to wake us up. A few of them came here and threw Dunkin’ Donuts job applications at us and laughed. But many of us work.”

George, the young man with the goatee, explained that it was difficult for many people struggling with drug addiction to get the treatment they need, so they wind up homeless.

“I’m going to go into the Army to get my mind straight,” he said. “I’m leaving on Aug. 21 to get trained to be a tanker,” a driver of what he described as “19-kilo tanks.”

As a group, most Common dwellers agreed that unaffordable housing and lack of space at the ServiceNet overnight shelter at 60 Wells St. had played a large role in putting them on the street.

“You have to call the shelter at 4:30 in the afternoon to see if they have a bed — and they never do,” said Bill. “It eats up your cell minutes, too.”

Responding to news of the evacuation order, a woman who gave her name as just Matty said, “I’m not surprised in the least bit. Look around here.” Gesturing at the tents behind her, she asked, “Would you want this here?”

After living in the woods near the river, as several of the homeless residents said they had, she relocated to the Common. Homeless people have for decades camped in various wooded locations around town, usually just outside the downtown, where they can find services during the day. But camping on the Common is new this summer and the numbers grew as many in the community lent sympathy and support, like coffee gift cards, food and camping equipment.

“We had a nice thing going until they kept telling people they could stay here,” she said. “It snowballed and soon every junkie and his dealer showed up. We told them to drink and use off the Common, but they wouldn’t, and the cops told us we could police ourselves. They set us up for failure.”

The homeless campers have until Aug. 20 to leave the Common following a Board of Health vote that tents are temporary housing, and therefore illegal on the Common.

Her friend, Bob Morin, 48, who also has been living on the Common, viewed the order as possibly hopeful.

“I heard we’ll eventually be moving into an abandoned building on High Street,” he said, referring to Mayor William Martin’s proposal to turn a former group home into temporary housing. “I was told by some inside tips that they’ll get it up to code.”

Morin praised Greenfield City Council member Timothy Dolan as a politician who has advocated for additional shelter for homeless residents.

“I’m focusing on body building and writing a book about martial arts,” Morin said. He plans to enter weightlifting competitions if he can “get over the stage fright. I believe that God has kept me going,” he said.

The health board made its decision after the mayor said he has a possible solution for temporary housing in a former group home owned by Clinical & Support Options, a Greenfield nonprofit that provides mental health and other social services.

Martin said CSO could offer the former group home and assistance to the city to house the homeless. The building is currently vacant and Greenfield Building Inspector Mark Snow reported found no significant deficiencies.

But Snow said Fire Chief Robert Strahan had questions of fire detection and a health inspection still had to take place. Martin said he believes the building could be ready within the next two to three weeks.

To facilitate the homeless moving into the temporary housing, Martin said the city will provide $9,000 to $11,000 to pay for a person to help Salvation Army Capt. Scott Peabody work with those on the Common one-on-one to find the appropriate services and options to help them.