New ServiceNet Shelter ‘The Pearl’ Opens in Pittsfield




PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Pearl aims to provide a sense of community for folks experiencing homelessness while connecting them with services to aid their situation.ServiceNet’s new 40-bed shelter at 21 Pearl St. has been operating for about two weeks after years of planning. The facility includes three dorms with bunk beds and en suite bathrooms, two recreation rooms, handicapped restrooms, and a laundry room.Director of Shelter and Housing Erin Forbush explained that while this doesn’t substitute having a space of your own, the goal is to create a community feel.“It’s not so much home because I don’t want to shortchange that they are going to go into a home of their choosing,” she said.“But it’s really about adding the level of community because we all need community even when we leave the space that we’re in and that’s the bigger piece that I try to really connect people with because that’s where we all have success in our lives is to have a connection outside of our own space.”The move from the former shelter at St. Joseph’s High School brought proper beds, full handicapped access, and a kitchen on site. Forbush added that she was “surprised and shocked” that people were able to maintain themselves on cots at the old location.“It’s been very smooth,” manager Pierre Abellie said about the transition. “To be honest, it has been much smoother than what I expected.”When walking through the dorms, it is clear that guests had personalized their spaces with blankets and other personal items.“I’d love to be able to say there is going to be days that we don’t need shelters, it’s never going to happen,” Mayor Peter Marchetti said.

“But to know that we have a process that works that takes people from maybe the lowest point in their life back to being able to be self-sufficient is the important piece of where we’re at.”Matthew Jacobs and Samatha Lee, who were formerly at the St. Joe shelter, said the new facility is “better, healthier, and safer.” Guests pitch in with chores and will soon start cooking meals in the First United Methodist Church dining area, which is in the same building.

“There’s more to do here than there was at St. Joe,” Lee said. “At St. Joe’s we didn’t have to do anything. Here we get we do chores, we actually have a community room, a living room upstairs and downstairs versus being in the gym watching TV. With two TVs, one on each side of the gym, it’s hard to do with trying to watch a movie.  All around it’s a lot better here.”Jacobs came up with a “Pearl House Pledge” that promises to do right in the community, support one another’s willingness and determination to change, and become hardworking and productive members of society.His goal is to find a stable place to live for the long run and to someday own a home.“The first goal as we get out of here is housing,” he explained. “Once we get into housing we can get a better career.”Plans for this shelter started before the pandemic and there was every intention to have it done by 2020 but for obvious reasons, Forbush said, the process was prolonged. The shelter was moved to the vacant former Catholic high school in 2020 after the onset of COVID-19.“As everything in the world snowballed, having contractors, having staff having supplies, it was just one roadblock after another and we made it through and there’s probably positives because we’ve been able to really help the full community,” she said.

“The high school, really it was not perfect but it gave us space to be able to keep people safe during those early COVID moments and then also, as the population of housing insecurity has really increased, it gave us the space to have more people in there, too.”ServiceNet has had a long-standing partnership with First United Methodist Church and Forbush said that the church came to them with a proposal for a shelter in the former education wing behind the parish.The structure of the space remained the same and the big construction pieces were the addition of new bathrooms and a sprinkler system.  “We had planned and anticipated pre-COVID some construction numbers and how much we thought that this retrofit was going to cost and the city was provided Community Development Block Grant funds to do that retrofit and then as we all know, the world kind of fell apart and construction costs and times, everything kind of exponentially increased,” Pittsfield’s Director of Community Development Justine Dodds explained.“And so in order to make some of the gaps, the city stepped in with their American Rescue Plan funds to make up the difference and it was a challenging process because we had delays on materials, it was hard to get contractors, there was some cost that then other things were triggered through building codes and whatnot that made the number rise significantly.”

In 2022, the city allocated $354,500 in ARPA funds for the project as part of an $8.6 million allocation of funds to support housing initiatives.The shelter received a grant from the HEALing Communities (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) study to install reverse motion detectors the bathrooms to alert staff of any medical emergencies that may happen and keep people safe. Narcan kits will also be placed in these areas.

Any person who identifies themselves as needing a place to stay will be welcomed to The Pearl if there is a bed available and if not, they are put on a waitlist and the case management team tries to connect them with housing.All 40 beds are currently full and there is a waitlist of more than 30 people.“There really aren’t requirements. We take a person at face value, what they’re telling us,” Forbush said. “We do do an intake process. Our funder does require us to get the demographics and then some of the paperwork that we do helps us identify the barriers to the next step.”A couple of years ago, turnover for available beds was about four months but Forbush said the world had changed a lot, with less and more expensive housing. This has made stays longer than before and guests are allowed at the shelter as long as they need to be.Dorms are separated by gender and while there used to be far fewer women than men, the population has increased. Currently, there are 16 women at The Pearl.Marchetti said every meeting held on the project goes back to ensuring that people are treated like they are human. He feels that the connection of services is a significantly important aspect of the shelter.This includes support staff, direct care staff, and the various agencies that ServiceNet partners with.  “There is probably not one agency that we don’t connect with,” Forbush said.Marchetti said the city will likely continue to support the shelter through funding such as CDBG or the Human Services Advisory Council. He said it would be easy for Pittsfield to not take responsibility in addressing this problem but that is not the case.“We’ve got to roll up our sleeves and kind of take an active role and I think first is really humanizing the people that we’re talking about,” he said.

“Because through the stigma and stuff, we’ve been able to kind of just, in some peoples’ minds create a second class of community and we need to erase that and really focus on the other pieces.”

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