Former Pittsfield, Mass., jail opens doors to the homeless

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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A bearded man hobbled into the Second Street Jail on Friday evening, using a cane to take pressure off his broken ankle.

Jack Quinn, superintendent of the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office, helped the man into a seat, bagged up his personal items and told him he'd find him a place to rest.

"Have you been taking these?" Quinn asked, taking a bottle of antibiotics from the man's coat pocket. The man affirmed.

Sheriff Thomas Bowler said his office is paying to staff the temporary shelter for the weekend, as overnight temperatures drop to freezing. He said he planned to take people overnight Friday, and then again starting 7 p.m. Saturday through 7 a.m. Sunday.

Those who work locally in the field estimate there are hundreds of homeless people in the Berkshires. Barton's Crossing, the county's largest shelter, can house 40 of them during the winter months, but those services don't begin until Nov. 1.

State funds support that winter program as part of a countywide effort, which also provides emergency beds at Soldier On and services through Construct in Great Barrington and the Louison House in North Adams.

Coffee, fruit and snacks sat on a table in the lobby of the old jail Friday night. On a separate table, Kelly Carnute lined up donated socks for homeless people to take.

Staff from the sheriff's office came with armloads of blankets.

Bowler said the building hasn't taken in inmates since 2001. "It's now property of the state, but we still maintain it," he said.

The goal is to provide some comfort until winter shelters open for the season. Some of the people they're helping have committed crimes in the past and served time, and so Bowler said they're familiar faces to the staff.

"With some of these individuals, in their condition, they're much safer here," he said.

Bowler said the idea is to get them taking help — case management, job services and help finding a place to stay.

"It's not just for those who've been incarcerated," he said. "It's for people who are down on their luck in the community."

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Bowler and Quinn said the old jail serves as a drop-in hub for services. He said they often allow homeless people to come in and take showers and access other services.

Quinn said the homeless problem has grown more visible in recent months, and the staff wanted to help.

"The sheriff's office has enough on our plate, but the sheriff's office isn't going to totally ignore it," he said. "It's something that's broken. There's a social ill, there."

"And it's our community; it's our responsibility, right?"

Of the effort, Homeless Prevention Committee Chairman Ed Carmel said "this is a fantastic start." While he reaches toward a longer-term solution to the problem, he said services at the former jail offer temporary relief.

"It's temporary, because the cold's coming and we need a place right now," he said.

Jay Sacchetti, ServiceNet's vice president for shelter and housing, said about 350 people used the countywide emergency winter shelter program last season.

"It's done a fairly good job at covering the need, but the need is growing," he said.

Homeless populations in Western Massachusetts are up about 25 percent this year, he said, just as they are elsewhere.

"It's consistent with what's going on across the whole country," he said. "We're not any different than anywhere else."

Of the growing need, he said Barton's Crossing, an arm of ServiceNet, is doing its best to address the issue.

"The staff is working as hard as they can with the resources we have," he said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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