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Tackling homelessness ‘one bite at a time’

  • Greenfield resident Jane Banks, who is the assistant undersecretary of the Department of Housing and Community Development, speaks during a summit discussing homelessness Friday at Greenfield Community College in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Claire Higgins, with mic, Brad Gordon, and Gerry McCafferty answer questions during a summit discussing homelessness Friday at Greenfield Community College in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Springfield Office of Housing Director Gerry McCafferty speaks during a summit discussing homelessness Friday at Greenfield Community College in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greenfield Community College President Yves Salomon-Fernández speaks during a summit discussing homelessness Friday at the college in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Springfield Office of Housing Director Gerry McCafferty speaks during a summit discussing homelessness Friday at Greenfield Community College in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little



Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2018

GREENFIELD — Chatting together afterward were what some could call two of the most influential people in a room full of policy makers and agenda setters gathered to discuss how to move closer to ending homelessness in western Mass.

Natalie Blais, the state representative-elect out of Sunderland who officially won Stephen Kulik’s seat this month, and Claire Higgins, the executive director of Community Action of Pioneer Valley, were reflecting on the two-hour presentation they had just heard, which laid out a handful of steps that in theory would significantly shrink the degree of homelessness in the area.

The data presented explained that chronic homelessness has declined by 38 percent since 2012 in western Mass. — although this data point may be more an indication of a declining number of homeless that are seen, but a rising number of homeless who are left unseen and under-housed.

“It’s clear that this isn’t just one issue,” Blais, the outgoing executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said. “There’s a need for additional affordable housing, higher paying jobs and more support services, if you really want to address this head-on.”

Asked how to actually work toward achieving those goals, Blais paused and thought for a moment.

“One bite at a time,” Higgins, the former mayor of Northampton, said, jumping in. She said there needs to be money for upstream prevention to address homeless youth.

“We have cut everything to the bone,” Blais continued, “but we cannot continue to cut if we’re going to address these problems.”

Higgins had shortly before addressed the audience of about 100 influencers in the region who had been invited by the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness Friday afternoon at Greenfield Community College.

“Housing is built in communities,” Higgins said. “I think local governments have to say: ‘Yes, we welcome you into our communities’.”

The goal of the comments from Higgins and the other leaders assembled to deliver their wisdom and a host of talking points was for the recently elected legislators to become educated in a core issue in their communities.

“The bottom line is prevention,” Higgins said. Communities need to develop more housing, create higher wage jobs so some people “don’t fall off the cliff and end up homeless.”

Present wasn’t just Blais, but also state Senate-elect Jo Comerford of Northampton. There were also representatives-elect Dan Carey of Easthampton, Mindy Domb of Amherst and Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton.

There were other elected state officials or their political aids including: Sen. Jim Welch, Sen. Adam Hinds, Rep. John Barrett, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Rep. Aaron Vega, Rep. Bud Williams, Rep. Carlos Gonzalez and Rep. Paul Mark.

A host of mayors came, including from Northampton, Easthampton, Holyoke, West Springfield, North Adams, Pittsfield; town managers from Amherst and South Hadley and MJ Adams from Greenfield Mayor William Martin’s office. Martin couldn’t make it for family reasons.

Adams, Greenfield’s community development administrator, said there were a handful of points she will bring right back to the mayor.

She felt certain Section 8 rent vouchers, talked about by Springfield’s Director of Housing Gerry McCafferty in her data presentation, were particularly useful and could lead to people in Greenfield finding a ticket to housing right away. The voucher is intended for non-elderly, disabled people.

Greenfield Housing Authority Director Dan Finn, one of several housing authority directors present, noted afterward that while additional vouchers in theory are helpful, there needs to be an apartment for people to use them, which isn’t always the case, given the affordable housing market.

Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and North Quabbin Coordinator Debra McLaughlin said she thought it was “heartening to have such a diverse group of stakeholders in the room across the four counties to talk about these issues.”

“We want to delve more deeply into the particular housing challenges for people in recovery and for folks who were formerly incarcerated,” McLaughlin said, noting a point that was not touched on directly by the presentation. “It’s a huge problem in our region.”

Homelessness can “impact not just the lives of the individuals, but impact the lives of multiple generations,” Greenfield Community College President Yves Salomon-Fernandez said in her opening remarks.

“I think it’s really important for communities to get together and partner together on how they will work toward homelessness,” said Jane Banks, assistant undersecretary of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development and a Greenfield resident.

Organizer and Executive Director of the the Western Mass. Network to End Homelessness Pamela Schwartz said the day was a “starting point.”

“Actually, it’s a marking point because we know this work has been going on for a long time, Schwartz said. “This is what is going to make us end homelessness, and I really mean it.”