In the Arena with Chris Collins: Greenfield looks out for its people

  • Chris Collins

Published: 2/2/2019 10:52:33 AM

 

Sometimes it’s good to have somebody that “gets” you. My wife, Barbara, is just such a person. She always manages to change my brainwaves just when I need it the most, as she did this past weekend when I began bellyaching about about the negative tone of today’s politics, and how sick I am of writing about it.

“Well, you don’t have to just talk about the bad stuff, Dood,” she said, referring to our nickname for each other. “You can write whatever you want. Why not write more about the positive stuff?”

And so the “Dood Challenge” was born, an effort in the coming weeks which will see your faithful scribe try to include at least one positive anecdote per week about life here in the “413.”

It didn’t take me long to find my first entry, in a place where I least expected it.

This past Monday at Greenfield High School, City Council President Karen Renaud hosted a public forum on homelessness, a gathering prompted by the death last week of two homeless people in a tent in a wooded area of the Mohawk Trail.

I’ll admit to being a little cynical heading into the event. I remember talking outside with Amy Clarke and grousing about the need for real solutions, not more feel-good rhetoric. I walked out feeling very differently, and with a couple of observations I spent much of the next day pondering.

The first was that, despite its imperfections, Greenfield remains a special community full of caring people who look out for one another. I always intrinsically knew that, but it was nice to see my belief so strongly reinforced, especially given the amount of political infighting in recent months.

The second takeaway was that the primary obstacle to immediately addressing the homeless problem lies, ironically enough, in some of the very rules and codes designed to protect the lives of citizens.

Most of the ideas brainstormed that night, including using houses of worship and various public buildings as overnight “warming spaces,” invariably ran up against a building or fire safety code which would not allow it. The person with the unenviable task of explaining that was Greenfield Fire Chief and Emergency Services Director Bob Strahan, who said he understands the frustration people are feeling.

“I get why people are upset, but these codes exist for a reason,” Strahan said. “They aren’t just words on a piece of paper. They are there to keep everyone safe.”

It was also made clear that, while city government needs to play a role in addressing the homeless problem, it’s only one part of the process.

“It needs to be a priority for the City Council,” Community Action and former Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins said. “There has to be a special commission or some other mechanism to address this.”

Higgins also pointed out that the homeless shelter which currently operates in Northampton was established and run by volunteers, not the city itself.

Although there was a lot of good networking and ideas generated, the closest thing to firm action came from an impromptu “pass the hat fundraiser” spearheaded by Greenfield native and local DJ Robert “Bobby C” Campbell, which pulled in about $600, which went to the Salvation Army to pay for hotel space for homeless residents.

“It’s great that we are all here and talking about this, but this is an emergency situation, and we need to do something,” Campbell said.

That discussion also generated some interesting and emotional comments from people like George Ballantine, who understands this issue better than most.

Just a year and a half ago, George was an addict living on the streets of Holyoke. A series of legal transgressions landed him in the Franklin County House of Corrections, where his life took a dramatic turn for the better.

“That’s where it all changed for me,” Ballentine said. “I was able to deal with my addiction, took classes, and got control of my life.”

Ballentine is back on the streets again, but in an entirely different role. He is now a peer advocate working to help homeless people, whom Ballentine says have to deal not only with poor living conditions, but also with the stigma that is often a by-product of a life lived on the street.

“That’s something where more education is needed, because not all homeless people are criminals, or bad people, or sex offenders or drug addicts,” Ballentine said.

“Some of them are people who have had bad luck in life and just need help coming back,” he said. “We need to remember that.”

Hopefully we will, because that may be the biggest step this community can take in addressing a problem that remains desperately in need of a solution.


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