‘We all need community.’ At The Pearl, Pittsfield’s new shelter, residents are making the space their own




PITTSFIELD — The Pearl, Pittsfield’s new shelter for those facing housing insecurity, is starting to look a bit more like home.

The shelter at 21 Pearl St. has been open since Jan. 22, but Erin Forbush, director of shelter operations for ServiceNet, said it’s just like any other move: The team there is still tweaking the space’s amenities and working out the kinks.

By and large, things are in place. The shelter, formerly at St. Joseph’s Central High School, has traded in cots for beds, and an open-air gymnasium for a dining hall with round tables that it shares with its host, First United Methodist Church. Three “dorm rooms” house 40 residents who sleep on bunks and have access to a connected bathroom. The restroom facilities are newly done, as is most of the plumbing.

Importantly, the space is much more colorful. The walls throughout the building are an inviting sky blue, an upgrade from the muted beige tones of St. Joseph’s.

“Color was a big piece that people identified as being beneficial to their waking up and enjoying the day,” Forbush said.

As residents have moved in, and added their own personal touches to the building, they have added color too, she said.

There’s a number of new improvements at The Pearl, including new laundry machines that were absent at St. Joe’s.

Erin Forbush, left, ServiceNet’s director of shelter operations, leads a walk-through with Mayor Peter Marchetti and their colleagues at the organization’s new homeless shelter, The Pearl, in Pittsfield, Wednesday, February 7, 2024.

A number of accessibility upgrades, including an elevator and handicap-accessible shower, make the building wholly available to people with disabilities.

New safety improvements are being added, too. Forbush said a motion sensor in the bathrooms will be installed to detect “an absence of movement” on a timer. If someone who enters the bathroom stops moving or is unresponsive for any reason, staff will check on them when alerted.

The Pearl is currently at capacity, with a waitlist of over 30 people, Forbush said. It’s opened after some delay with help from the city of Pittsfield, which has contributed Community Development Block Grants and $354,500 in American Rescue Plan Act funding to its completion.

As part of a walkthrough at the shelter Wednesday, Mayor Peter Marchetti said his administration has been involved in talks to better serve the homeless population in Pittsfield.

woman leading tour through common room with chairs

“Every meeting that we have goes back to ensuring that people are being treated like humans,” Marchetti said, adding that stigma surrounding homelessness has led to a dehumanization of those experiencing it.

He sees The Pearl as a step in the right direction for that sentiment.

The shelter’s occupants, much like its staff, are still settling in. But as case workers attempt to find them permanent housing, residents are making the Pearl their own.

Matt Jacobs is a resident at The Pearl, and has needed a place to stay for about three months. Jacobs stays with his girlfriend, Samantha Lee, who said that she’s glad to be out of the temporary emergency shelter at St. Joe’s, which now stands idle at 22 Maplewood Ave.

That shelter, in the now-defunct high school, was in use for the past three years as a stopgap during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lee said that the building’s condition — a crumbling roof, problems with mold and other issues that aren’t present at The Pearl — made it difficult to stay there.

“Here, it’s better, healthier, safer,” Lee said.

The space is also segmented and offers more amenities. There are two community rooms, each with a television set and a desktop computer for residents to use.

“We actually have a community room upstairs and downstairs, versus being in the gym and watching TV with two TVs, one on each side of the gym,” Lee said. “That’s hard to do, if you’re trying to watch a movie.

The community rooms are also where overflow residents stay, Forbush said. The site functions as a warming center for Pittsfield residents who need a place to stay from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., when businesses are not open, she said.

The shelter’s occupants are happy to have more activities during the day. Pierre Abellie, the site manager at The Pearl, formulates a chore list for residents to help keep the space clean. Residents take turns cooking meals in the community dining space, Forbush said, with two at a time volunteering their services.

“There’s more to do here than there was at St. Joe’s,” Lee said. “At St. Joe’s, we didn’t have to do anything.”

“All around, it’s a lot better here than St. Joe’s,” Lee said.

There’s an increased sense of ownership for residents at The Pearl, Forbush said. The current occupants helped to facilitate the move from St. Joe’s and get the shelter established in its new home.

Jacobs echoed that residents are motivated to maintain The Pearl.

“We see something on the floor, we pick it up,” Jacobs said. “If the bathroom needs to be cleaned, one of us just picks up a mop and we clean it.”

Jacobs sees the upkeep at the shelter as part of his responsibility, since the staff at the shelter is helping him out in return. It’s just how he was raised, he said.

“We all work as a family here,” Jacobs said. “We work together to make sure everything’s clean, and picked up. We work like it’s our own home here. They’re giving us help that we need, so we give back.”

Jacobs ultimately wants to find suitable long-term housing for him and Lee, who has a disability. Until then, he hopes to foster a community with his fellow residents so that they can all be “hard-working members of society,” he said.

Abellie said that the shelter’s more consistent population helps to create deeper bonds among residents, and makes it easier to facilitate community spaces.

“At St. Joe’s we had more space and we could have a turnaround of 20 new people on any given day,” Abellie said. “So it was much harder at St. Joe’s to create that sense of camaraderie and stuff like that. Here, it’s easier to do so.”

That community can be crucial for people when they eventually find housing of their choosing, Forbush said, hence the emphasis on trying to facilitate it.

“We all need community, even when we leave the space that we’re in,” Forbush said. “That’s the bigger piece – we try to really connect people, because that’s where we all have success in our lives, is to have connections outside of ourselves.”

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