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Mayor addresses protestors after encampment shutdown

  • City Councilor Doug Mayo debated with Mayor William Martin about the role of the municipality in sheltering the homeless during a small demonstration in front of the Greenfield Common Friday morning. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon

  • Protesters, including City Councilor Doug Mayo, debated with Mayor William Martin the role of the municipality in sheltering the homeless during a small demonstration in front of the Greenfield Common Friday morning, on the first day the homeless or anybody were no longer to be allowed on the property. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon

  • Activists, some of whom work for local service agencies, debated with Mayor William Martin the role of the municipality in sheltering the homeless during a small demonstration in front of the Greenfield Common Friday morning, on the first day the homeless or anybody were no longer to be allowed on the property. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon

  • Human Rights Commissioner Member and local activist Sarah Ahern debated with Mayor William Martin the role of the municipality in sheltering the homeless during a small demonstration in front of the Greenfield Common Friday morning, on the first day the homeless or anybody were no longer to be allowed on the property. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon

  • The Greenfield Common Friday morning, on the first day the homeless or anybody were no longer to be allowed on the property. The Department of Public Works began the rehabilitation process. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon

  • The Greenfield Common Friday morning, on the first day the homeless or anybody were no longer to be allowed on the property. The Department of Public Works began the rehabilitation process. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon

  • The Greenfield Common Friday morning, on the first day the homeless or anybody were no longer to be allowed on the property. The Department of Public Works began the rehabilitation process. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon

  • The Greenfield Common Friday morning, on the first day the homeless or anybody were no longer to be allowed on the property. The Department of Public Works began the rehabilitation process. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon



Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2018

GREENFIELD — Early Friday morning, Mayor William Martin walked up to half a dozen protestors on the sidewalk in front of the Greenfield Common that had been vacated by about 20 homeless campers.

He asked them if he could answer any questions. The activists, holding signs with variations of “homelessness isn’t a crime,” asked Martin why the city isn’t doing more for the homeless.

“What have you done?” Martin retorted. “Writing and protesting doesn’t get people housing.”

From there, a back-and-forth ensued on a morning that had been relatively quiet up to that point, despite all of the dialogue brewing in the lead-up to that morning’s deadline for homeless campers to vacate the Common, where they had been since early July.

The spat pitted the mayor against a group that included a city councilor, a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission and the regional Opioid Task Force, a service agency employee and the leader of the Recovery Learning Community — all of whom defended their First Amendment rights and emphasized the need to keep the issue in the public’s face even though homeless people aren’t on the Common anymore.

Friday was the first day the Greenfield Common was closed by city officials and it marked the official end of the month-and-a-half homeless encampment there.

Some of the nearly 20 people who had lived in the center of the city these past several weeks have found beds in shelters, admittance in detox facilities or couches to surf on. Some, as late as Thursday evening, were headed back to the woods on the edges of downtown.

Some will continue to wait for shelters to open, which city officials, working in tandem with local agencies Clinical & Support Options and ServiceNet, hope to open sometime in early September.

MJ Adams, who has led the efforts by City Hall, said Thursday night, as people were packing up their tents, that the process was “unexpectedly expedited” by the Aug. 24 deadline set by the mayor.

Put up in a shelter earlier this week, the leader of “commoners,” Madelynn Malloy, said about the proposed solutions: “Nothing sustainable. Nothing legit.”

If Friday marked the official end of the homeless encampment on the Common, it has also posed the question of the city’s role in sheltering the homeless, if any?

Traditionally, the state, by funding social service agencies like Service Net, has provided shelters for the homeless. In fact, the state government caused a measure of consternation locally about three years ago when it placed scores of homeless families from other parts of the state in Greenfield hotels for weeks on end.

The mayor, after weeks of his staff orchestrating efforts by service agencies to address the homeless issue that became a political lightning rod, has insisted it is primarily the job of the nonprofits, not the city. The protestors, including City Councilor Doug Mayo, insisted it is the city’s job to do more.

“We’ve always had people living in the woods across Greenfield,” Martin said to Mayo and the protestors. “It’s always been like that, and it’s not going to change.”

Mayo had been asking the mayor to form a special group to address homelessness in the city and for a regular report to be provided at City Council meetings. Martin said the city is always working to address homelessness, as are the service agencies, and added, “We’re not in the position to keep creating new committees for issues.”

The councilor, who was elected this past fall with support of unions and the progressive coalition Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution, questioned the mayor’s timeline to close the Common.

Friday morning, public works crews with five trucks begin to dig up the dead lawn left by the homeless campers on the Common, to prepare for reseeding.

Field Superintendent Paul Raskevitz, said the Common may be opened to the public earlier than Oct. 1, a date which he called a “worst case scenario.” He estimated the cost to re-seed, which typically is done every two or three years and was most recently done this past spring, will total $2,000 to $2,500.

Earlier the DPW planned to lay wood chips after clearing the Common Friday to make way for the 13th Annual Free Harvest Supper on Sunday. Instead, the Common won’t be used for the supper, which will set up on nearby Court Square.

Mayo disagreed with the political messaging by the mayor, who he said had given the impression the city had to close the Common Friday to begin rehabilitating the Common, partly for health and safety concerns, before the harvest supper.

“Priorities are grass-seeding over people,” Mayo said, “that should not be the message out there. That’s a very bad optic.”

Martin said Mayo was confusing the issue.

Malloy, standing aside with her own sign, said, “You’re confusing the issue? I am the issue. I’m the (person) who planted a tent here.”

When Martin first approached the protestors, he went up to Sarah Ahern, a member of the Human Rights Commission and Greenfield native. He read her sign — “Criminalizing homelessness is a violation of the 8th Amendment of our Constitution” — referring to a 2015 Department of Justice ruling arguing the federal law supersedes local law when it comes to the rights of the homeless to shelter. Ahern had sent an email with similar content to the mayor, city officials and the press the day before. Martin, unprompted, told Ahern that her sign was not accurate.

“Who’s working on permanent housing solutions?” Martin asked the activists. He told them housing, and not protests, was the solution. “Nobody in this group is doing that.”

The mayor and the protestors debated the optics of the situation.

Mayo said the fact people were living on the Common had elevated the issue and the response to it. Martin said homelessness is always relevant and never out-of-sight, out-of-mind because of how pervasive it is in today’s culture.

On Thursday, Mary McClintock, the community collaboration coordinator of Community Action of Pioneer Valley, said as she has become entrenched in this issue in recent weeks that she has “heard from many people that (said) they hadn’t been aware of the issues of homelessness in our community,” leading to more understanding around difficulties for people to find affordable housing in Greenfield.

Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh said Friday morning, “Out-of-sight, out-of-mind doesn’t necessarily work and nor should it.” Instead, the chief, who has nearly unanimously been praised by the community throughout this process, said going forward, “I think the city will have to have a strategy and we’ll be a part of it.”

Haigh, in a press release put out later in the day, thanked his officers for exhibiting the “true meaning of what being a ‘police officer’ is all about rather than just being a ‘law enforcement officer.’” He additionally thanked the mayor and his team’s response in engaging local agencies in finding help for people, saying, “There is no playbook, checklist to follow, or training for this type of challenge, yet they consistently showed an ability to balance the needs and interests of individuals while recognizing the greater impact on the community as a whole.”

Haigh also said in the release the “encampments and occupation” of the Common in the past weeks posed a “unique challenge for our city,” but he is “hopeful this increase in awareness will result in a better outcome for those who want and need help in this way.”

In conversations with the activists, the mayor eventually agreed that it might be a good idea to have the Greenfield Housing Authority provide a brief report that could be made available to the City Council at its September meeting. He said the housing authority, an independent agency that receives state and federal funds to provide low-cost housing, would be better suited for this. Dan Finn, executive director of the authority, said at a board meeting later in the day he would compile some kind of snapshot of the housing stock in Greenfield, following being asked by Adams.

Adams told the board she was at the meeting to “start a conversation with the housing authority on what we need to do to beef up our supply of single-occupancy units in Greenfield.”

In Massachusetts, state government recognizes a family’s “right to shelter,” while individuals do not have the same right.

Martin walked away from the group after one protestor, who said he had been homeless for two years, questioned whether Martin had ever been homeless. Martin replied that he had lived in the jungle for a year during his military service in Vietnam. He asked if that counts. The individual said it doesn’t. The mayor said he had enough and walked away.

Afterward, Mayo said about the situation that unfolded:

“I saw the mayor’s answers and lack of answers as very confrontational, at times ... When it came to answering some critical questions, his response was very combative. It’s been filled with the rhetoric we’ve heard for days.”

During the exchange, as he has in these past weeks, Martin noted there are federal programs to address homelessness and the service agencies need to do their part to work at this issue that does not, and should not, solely fall on the city government.

“He was touting all of the work the (city) had done, which a lot of people standing here acknowledged, but it didn’t go the extra mile it should have,” Mayo said. “That’s a big part of why we’re standing out here, to keep it on the front burner.”

You can reach Joshua Solomon at: jsolomon@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.