We don’t get much news about Western Mass in Boston. And since the population is relatively small in the largely rural western counties of the Commonwealth, it can be easy to miss significant stories. Because the scale of noteworthy happenings is naturally smaller there. Because our diminished metro news outlets have trouble covering the entire state. And because, let’s be honest, Bostonians don’t usually care about what happens west of, like, Brookline.
So at first glance, word of a homeless encampment out in Greenfield isn’t something that would get much attention hereabouts at the best of times. But for a city with a population that fell by more than 500 people to 17,456 between the 2000 and 2010 censuses—with a median household income of $33,110, and 14 percent of residents below the poverty line—it’s an important enough development to warrant a series of articles in the local press. And I think it deserves coverage here in the Hub as well.
Especially when the encampment is on the Greenfield Common, opposite the Greenfield City Hall (better known as the Town Hall prior to a recent change in nomenclature). Something unusual is definitely afoot.
It seems two local homeless people began camping on the common a couple of months ago. A number that quickly grew to 20 regular residents in as many as a dozen tents. According to the Greenfield Recorder, their “de facto spokeswoman” Madelynn Malloy “and others have said previously they are camping on the common because there is no other place that is safe for homeless residents to go and because current city law allows them to stay there day or night. There are no requirements for licenses or permits to be there and the homeless residents’ actions are not considered loitering, but public assembly. The city has an ordinance prohibiting loitering, but it only applies to sidewalks.”
A city count of last January pegged the homeless population at 39, but area charities have said the actual number is significantly higher—as they noted during the brutal cold snap at the end of 2017 when their shelters were so overwhelmed that the Salvation Army put up $1,600 to house people at Days Inn. Since that time, the Greenfield Human Rights Commission and homeless advocates have been pushing for the city to do more. Meanwhile, the encampment has put a very human and public face on the crisis, and has sparked meetings and debates in local government about how to find housing for the homeless.
Unfortunately, there seems to be at least as much concern from Mayor William Martin to get the city council to pass rules effectively banning camping on Greenfield Common as there is to find ways to house local homeless people. The latter being the obvious policy priority, if for no other reason than to relieve overwhelmed private social service agencies.
Most recently, a breakthrough of sorts—also reported in the Greenfield Recorder—happened when the city council voted to put a port-a-potty closer to the common than the one local churches previously made available. “According to the Department of Public Works, the cost of a temporary restroom is $150 a month and includes emptying it. The mayor’s office said the first two months of the portable toilet would be paid for by the Interfaith Council and an unnamed local business. There is no plan currently in place for funding after the two months.” The council also voted, apparently contrary to the mayor’s wishes, to decrease “regulations on churches to set up temporary shelters” and open “the former Wedgewood Gardens property on Kimball Drive as a possible site for an encampment.” The mayor then vowed to “attempt to find temporary housing solutions through a ‘rapid re-housing team’” made up of “city officials and social service and humanitarian agencies.”
Baby steps perhaps. But it would not do to underplay the difficult situation Greenfield government finds itself in. It’s going to take officials time to find even a stopgap solution. Large cities like Boston aren’t doing a great job of dealing with a growing homeless crisis either; so it’s obviously more difficult for smaller municipalities with fewer resources to house and provide services for even a few dozen people.
Particularly when, as was pointed out in a DigBoston op-ed by Lawrence social services executive Joe D’Amore in January, many communities in Massachusetts ban people from sleeping in public spaces or even “loitering” there. Which merely shifts the burden of dealing with homelessness to more densely populated and tolerant locales with more social services like Lawrence. Or Greenfield.
Hopefully people will retain the right to sleep on the Greenfield Common overnight when needed, and the city government will cobble together some longer-term housing options for its homeless population before winter sets in.
Yet however things turns out in the largest burg in Franklin County, the situation is interesting not because it is unique… but because it is sadly commonplace. Across Massachusetts and all over America the story is the same. Despite claims of a “strong economy” from Republicans and many Democrats, homelessness is ever more persistent and ever more desperate.
To see an actual strong economy in a place like Greenfield, one has to look back to the 1950s—when the city was home to major metal-working concerns, the largest being Greenfield Tap & Die. But that plant was sold off to a larger company in 1958, and most of its jobs disappeared over decades. The city’s last major manufacturing business, Lunt Silversmiths, went under in 2009 during the Great Recession.
According to the Republican, Lunt had 800 employees in 2001. And only “12 to 15” by the end. It’s difficult for even larger cities to recover from that kind of blow to their job base, let alone a small city like Greenfield.
It will thus shock no one that the rise of the opiate crisis tracks closely to this decline in the city’s fortunes. And it’s therefore ironic in the extreme that the former Lunt plant is now home to two drug treatment facilities, Franklin Recovery Center and Northern Hope.
The opiate crisis relates directly to the homeless crisis. And both relate to the ongoing jobs crisis. Increasingly unregulated capitalism, as I often write, is clearly incapable of providing good jobs for our population. As the job base collapses, people in Greenfield, Boston, and around the nation are stuck with lousy part-time, temp, contract, independent contractor, and day labor gigs. Or with no jobs at all.
As these downwardly mobile people see their lives collapsing, they turn to opiates. Maybe because they got injured in their precarious pseudo-jobs and got put on addictive pain killers by well-meaning doctors being suckered by criminal conspiracies like oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma of nearby Stamford, Connecticut. Or maybe because they couldn’t take the humiliation of no longer being able to provide for themselves and their families, and reached for the strongest, most reliable, and readily available chemical solace. And soon enough, more and more of these folks end up on the streets.
Without public jobs programs, new public housing, and cradle-to-grave public healthcare, local, state, and federal governments will not be able to fix these related crises. Even if they wanted to. Which they don’t in this era of gangster capitalism. Nor will “private” charities. Many of which already rely on shrinking pools of government money to do what little they can do to stem the tide of rising poverty.
So it’s critical that people in big cities like Boston—especially press and policy makers—pay careful attention to small municipalities like Greenfield. They are canaries in the coal mine of a political economic system that can only be called failing, the less it is able to provide for the growing number of people on the bottom of our societal pyramid.
As such, we ignore the Greenfields of our nation at our peril. We must act now to stop the rest of our communities, large and small, from continuing their rolling collapse. A task we can best begin by rebuilding government at all levels to focus on the human needs of all of its denizens. And stop privileging the schemes of the rich and powerful few over the livelihoods of the struggling multitude.
Townie is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. His Apparent Horizon column is winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.