Energy Park provides shelter for homeless, others

  • Chet Sinclair, left, talks with gardener Ardi Keim at Energy Park in Greenfield. Some homeless people and others have been spending their days and some of their nights there this summer. Gardeners take care of the park and have been helping the people staying there by providing conversation, as well as water, food and other supplies. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Myke Upshaw, who camps at night along the Green River off of Colrain Street, spends time at Energy Park in Greenfield. Upshaw crafts jewelry to sell on Etsy and Facebook. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Gardener Jeri Case, left, chats with Gwin Covington at the stage in Energy Park in Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Chet Sinclair chats with the gardeners at Energy Park in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Gardeners Ardi Keim and Wisty Rorabacher, left, talk with Myke Upshaw at Energy Park in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 9/4/2020 4:00:54 PM
Modified: 9/4/2020 4:00:42 PM

GREENFIELD — Gwin Covington hangs out almost every day with friends she’s made while spending a good deal of time at Energy Park.

She, like several others who spend their days there, is homeless, at least for now, but she’s worried that winter will be here before she and her friends know it.

“The main reason I’m homeless is coronavirus,” she said. “The only reason we’re allowed here, right now, is the pandemic. If there were shows going on here, like there usually are in the summer, and if people were spending more time here, like they do in the summer, we probably would have been moved on by now.”

Covington said she, like many of her peers who spend each day on the stage of the former train station and sleep there at night, enjoy music and would love to not only see it return to the park, but she would want to be a part of it and would be more than happy to volunteer to help.

“We’ve got a few musicians here,” she said. “It would be a nice way to build community.”

She looked around the stage at several of her friends and peers. They were surrounded by coolers, clothing, boxes and bags of personal belongings, and a shopping cart. Some, she said, were trapped between receiving too much Social Security to be eligible for assistance and not enough to come up with first and last month’s rent.

Covington said she doesn’t like being homeless — she doesn’t think anyone does — but it’s the hand she’s been dealt at the moment. She said she feels safe, for the most part, because police walk through every now and then, so there haven’t been many problems.

“We do call a couple of the paths that lead from the woods into the park ‘Heroin Highway,’ though,” she said. “People come here to use or deal and we do our best to get them out. They just cause conflict and bring the police here for obvious reasons.”

She and others who sat on the stage one warm, overcast morning either chatting, crafting or simply “chilling,” said they just want a safe, clean place to live until they find apartments for themselves.

“We’re in a decent situation here,” she said. “People bring us food, so we’re not hungry. They bring us water, so we’re not thirsty. We have a sense of community. I feel it even more than when I was housed.”

‘An outdoor shelter for us’

A group of gardeners who work on the park’s gardens weekly started introducing themselves to Covington and others, and brought them water, snacks and food. Word got around and people started donating money, masks and personal items to help make them more comfortable.

On the other hand, though, Covington said, while people have been nice and thoughtful, there are ways that those living in the park are worse off than they were — they’re exposed to the elements and to others with less than law-abiding intentions.

“It can be a struggle, bad, chaotic,” she said. “There’s drugs and alcohol all around us. It’s unhealthy. Some people are trying to recover.”

She and others, who didn’t want to speak on record, said there’s an “unspoken agreement” between them and law enforcement and city officials of Greenfield.

“They allow us to stay, even though signs say ‘no,’ as long as we keep it clean and don’t cause trouble,” Covington said.

And they have kept it clean, including clearing graffiti from the former train station’s walls. They pick up and dispose of their trash, they use the two porta potties the town brought there for their use, and they keep to themselves and don’t bother people who do walk through on occasion.

“This has become an outdoor shelter for us,” she said. “No one has ‘officially’ acknowledged that. I guess we could get kicked out at any time. Then, we’d have to sleep on benches or in the woods, and that wouldn’t be good for us. It would be dangerous.”

They said city authorities and others don’t seem as concerned as they were a couple of years ago about the homeless encampment on the Greenfield Common, but they believe that’s because they are basically “out of sight, out of mind.” At least for now, while the pandemic looms.

City officials work with homeless

Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said homelessness is a complicated issue, but right now the city understands that those sleeping in the park need somewhere to go.

“We haven’t had a lot of problems,” Wedegartner said. “They come and go during the day and a few sleep on the stage at night. The gardeners have engaged with them, police visit the park regularly to make sure everything and everyone is OK and (the Department of Public Works) picks up the trash.”

Wedegartner said the situation came to the city’s attention earlier in the summer.

“We’re trying to accommodate them and make sure they’re safe, everyone is safe,” she said. “Our Community and Economic Development Director MJ Adams is currently working on financing for warming centers and a small overnight center so that they and others have somewhere to go this winter.”

Wedegartner said the people in Energy Park have just as much a right to be there as anyone. She said the city will continue to pick up trash and keep the two porta potties there, and police will continue to check in.

“Homelessness is a complex situation anywhere, and COVID-19 has made this even more complex,” she said. “We just want to make sure that everyone is safe and civil to each other.”

‘Just trying to survive’

Chet Sinclair said he is not homeless, though he once was, but he likes to visit his friends in the park and spend the day there.

“I was homeless three years ago,” he said. “I’ve known many of these people for 15 years. I lived on the hill in back of Stop & Shop for some time.”

He said Greenfield is his home, whether he’s sleeping indoors or outdoors.

“I come down here to help protect these guys,” he said. “They’re not setting up tents. They’re not bothering anyone. So, I don’t like seeing anyone bother them. They’re just trying to survive.”

Sinclair said many of those visiting the park during the day or making it their home and sleeping there at night are shy and don’t like to ask for help. Others take bags or boxes just up the street to pick up food from local social service agencies. They’ve all figured out where they can get a good, hot community meal and return to the park to eat it.

“People lose their way and it’s hard to get back on track,” Sinclair said. “They’re not bad people, they’ve just had some tough luck.”

Like Myke Upshaw, who lives in the park with his wife. Originally from Fitchburg, his wife grew up in Greenfield and that’s why they decided to move to the area.

“I ended up with cancer during the pandemic,” Upshaw said. “That wasn’t fun. We don’t live here in the park, but we visit our friends during the day. We’re camping by the river (at the former Wedgewood Gardens property off of Colrain Street). I come here, visit and make my jewelry, which I sell on Etsy and Facebook.”

Upshaw said when he was diagnosed with cancer, they were living in California, and he couldn’t sell his jewelry and couldn’t pay the rent. He and his wife were evicted, and they traveled back to Massachusetts.

“We eat meals at the Salvation Army,” he said. “It’s not that bad because we love camping. And, we love it here in the park. No one, for the most part, bothers us.”

Most who sat on the stage that day in late August said they’d love for the mayor, city officials, police and others to come to the park to talk with them and learn a little about their trials and tribulations.

Upshaw said, like his friends, he’s not looking for sympathy or handouts. He’d just like a break.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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