A donation from Coca-Cola and a new shelter: What Northampton is doing to help the houseless amid the COVID pandemic

  • JANUARY 5TH, 2021

During a public hearing about law enforcement in Northampton last month, residents voiced a slew of overlapping concerns about houseless residents in the city. The concerns included that they believe the homeless are over-policed, that they do not receive adequate community services and, more specifically, that they have been unable to get public drinking water this winter.

“Northampton creates massive human rights violations,” one resident bluntly claimed during the meeting. “Just to back that right now, for everyone to hear, we do not have access to public drinking water in Northampton right now.”

Houseless individuals have remained one of the most at-risk demographics since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and are slated to be among the first in the state to received doses of the vaccine for the viral respiratory infection.

Although city officials in Northampton said local service organizations do not view a lack of water as an issue for houseless residents in the community, they recognized a variety of other issues facing those in need of housing, ranging from accessing food to simply finding a place to warm up amid the chilly New England weather. The small Hampshire County city has plans in the work to address several of these concerns.

“The mayor has been deeply concerned about people experiencing homelessness and has directed the executive branch of the city of Northampton to do everything possible to prevent people from harm during this pandemic since it began last March,” Alan Wolf, chief of staff to Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, wrote in an email to residents in mid-December that laid out a few of the ongoing initiatives the city is spearheading to help alleviate the plight of the houseless.

His statements came in response to numerous calls and emails expressing concern about Northampton’s houseless community, particularly with the arrival of colder weather.

In his email, Wolf said he aimed to explain what the mayor’s office has done in the months after the opening of a homeless shelter at Northampton High School last spring during the height of the pandemic. That facility has since been closed due to teenagers having to return to classes.

“The city,” Wolf wrote, “has worked tirelessly with its many partners to fill every possible gap in the social service system that has been exposed by this deadly disease.”

Among the efforts the city has been involved in to help houseless residents amid the ongoing public health crisis are adding portable toilets in the community’s downtown, creating a “Community & Resilience Hub” for at-risk residents and joining a regional task force to organize winter shelters.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Wolf noted, expanding the city’s shelter capacity has been a top priority for the mayor’s office and its longtime partner, ServiceNet. The nonprofit operates multiple shelters in the community, including the Grove Street Inn and the Interfaith Shelter.

In late November, the mayor’s office announced the city and ServiceNet would be partnering to open a third facility for houseless residents, an emergency 24/7 shelter at First Churches of Northampton on Main Street.

“First Churches is proud to partner with ServiceNet and the city of Northampton to meet this important need. Our congregation is committed to providing shelter and safety for people currently without homes,” Rev. Todd Weir of First Churches said in a statement. “In this holiday season, I find hope in our community’s ability to work together to alleviate the serious impacts of COVID.”

The opening of a new shelter in Northampton had been in the works for months. With the onset of winter, officials recognized that sleeping spaces at the Grove Street Inn and Interfaith Shelter would be strained and not provide enough room for proper social distancing.

The Northampton COVID-19 Emergency Team – led by Narkewicz and made up of public health, fire rescue, emergency management, police and city personnel – then spent several months searching for a location for a new shelter.

“Through conversations and searching the community, we identified First Churches and got them together with ServiceNet, and they worked out an arrangement to use portions of their indoor space,” Narkewicz told MassLive during a phone interview last month. “We’re grateful for First Churches, and obviously there’s a bunch of really kind-hearted community members who are stepping forward to volunteer at the shelter, much like they did at the shelter at Northampton High School. So far, it’s going well.”

United Way volunteers prepare the First Churches of Northampton for use as a shelter. Volunteers are needed to assist with the new shelter.

The First Churches facility has been open for a month now and has expanded the city’s total shelter capacity from 25 to 42 beds for those in need. Organizers aim to make another 13 beds available as well as possible temporary surge space beyond that, according to Wolf.

Those entering the facility, whether they are staff or residents of the shelter, are screened for any signs of illness. If they show any of the predetermined public health markers, they are not allowed inside the shelter and are instead directed for medical evaluation and isolation at another location. Once there, residents are then screened twice a day, the mayor’s office said.

“We know so much more about how the virus is transmitted now than we did last spring, and I look forward to working with ServiceNet to ensure the safest possible environment for the shelter residents, First Churches, and our community,” Northampton Health Director Merridith O’Leary said in a statement. “The fact that there will be a nearby isolation and quarantine shelter for those who need it will help tremendously.”

Following the opening of the First Churches shelter, Narkewicz’s office turned its attention to setting up a warming center in the community. With the ongoing closures of Northampton’s library and other city buildings, the mayor noticed the need for a new space that could welcome houseless residents during the cold weather, Wolf said.

Manna Soup Kitchen, which serves more than 500 meals per week to those in need, was working with St. John’s Episcopal Church earlier last month to open a room for warming, according to Wolf.

At the same time, Narkewicz asked Amy Cahillane, executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association, to seek a contribution from Coca-Cola of bottled water for the houseless.

The company has since donated 200 cases of bottled water, which were delivered to Manna’s locations on the backs of trucks by the Northampton Department of Public Works, according to Narkewicz.

While not environmentally ideal, the mayor noted, bottled water is the safest way to meet the hydration needs of the houseless during the pandemic.

“We need to extend a huge thank you to Coca-Cola,” Manna Soup wrote in a Facebook post. “We also need to thank the Northampton Department of Public Works for doing the ‘heavy lifting’ – picking it up, delivering it to us, and bringing it through our door.”

“It takes a village, Northampton,” Narkewicz added in another post.

The mayor has also sought to help houseless residents by joining a task force kicked off by Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. Compromised of more than 60 state legislators, mayors, town managers, health departments, social services agencies and others in the region, the group is working to address a variety of issues facing those without housing.

“The group represented an unprecedented joint effort to craft a regional approach to the need for winter shelters across the four counties of western Massachusetts,” the mayor’s office noted. “It also represented a unique opportunity to bring unified pressure to bear on the Baker Administration for financial support for common-sense solutions executed at the local level.”

One of the so-called “common-sense solutions,” Narkewicz stated, was the reopening of a quarantine facility and homeless shelter at a Northampton hotel.

Through the task force, the mayor drafted a letter that several Western Massachusetts mayors and town managers signed onto it asking Gov. Charlie Baker to reopen a quarantine and isolation facility for houseless residents at the Quality Inn in the city. The facility would also have included space for healthy people in need of shelter, according to Wolf.

The hotel on Conz Street was previously authorized for use as a shelter in April and was operated by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency for a period of time.

“Our public health leaders from the region have expressed grave concern that many people experiencing homelessness are likely to refuse to get tested or to quarantine -in effect refuse shelter -for fear of being relocated so far from their home community if they test positive or have been exposed to COVID-19,” municipal officials wrote in their letter.

Narkewicz’s letter led to a meeting with Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and other state officials, according to Wolf.

“While they did not support the concept of a single shelter model, they did commit to – and later followed through on – full financial support for a Northampton shelter,” Wolf wrote in his email to residents.

Those wishing to volunteer for the city to help houseless residents can sign up at www.northamptonma.gov/volunteersubmission or contact Northampton Volunteer Coordinator Loren Davine at [email protected].

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