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Northern Berkshire United Way: A call to action on homelessness

by Christa Collier

Tuesday, January 1, 2019 - North Adams. The holiday season is behind us, and I hope you and yours were home surrounded by friends and family. Unfortunately, not everyone in our community was able to.

At Louison House, a member agency of Northern Berkshire United Way and Northern Berkshires' only homeless shelter and transitional housing program, 23 individuals in our community resided in the shelter for the holidays. Sixteen others resided in supportive apartments.

Homelessness often goes unnoticed in Northern Berkshire, but it is steadily increasing. In February 2017, after a Northern Berkshire Community Coalition forum on housing insecurity, there was interest to continue the conversation. Recognizing that one organization cannot solve these complex issues alone, Northern Berkshire United Way facilitated the initial meeting.

We discovered that multiple organizations worked with a population at risk for homelessness but lacked the time to have formal communication with each other. In addition, most supplemental services individuals needed to apply for were based in Pittsfield and difficult for Northern Berkshire individuals and families to access. There was hesitancy to establish another collaborative, but agreement was made to be action-oriented and solution-minded. The Northern Berkshire Housing and Homeless Collaborative (NBHHC) was born.

With a diverse group of organizations involved, including representatives not only from Northern Berkshire United Way member agencies but from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams Public Schools and Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority (BCHRA), the NBHHC established formalized interdisciplinary resource sharing as part of each monthly meeting agenda.

Next, projects were identified that addressed our mission: to share information, provide awareness and education, secure resources that increase services and remove barriers to adequate housing for youth and adults in Northern Berkshire.

Our first year, the Berkshire Community Action Council's North Adams office stepped up and offered space in its North Adams office for BCRHA's outreach worker to meet with North Adams clients. This assisted individuals and families in need of support with completing applications and other resources, instead of the additional burden and expense of travel to Pittsfield.

"Through the work of the Collaborative and the awareness of resources, calls to Louison House have increased for people homeless or in imminent danger of becoming homeless. Our close work with partners in the collaborative helped us to utilize additional BCRHA resources and staff, including their youth outreach worker, who works with people who have contacted us or other agencies to help them avoid homelessness," said Kathy Keeser, executive director of Louison House.

This past year, through funding provided by the Feigenbaum Foundation, we were able to further our priorities and collaborative efforts. Most notable are crafting a community protocol for crisis situations and the development of a comprehensive resource card. This will launch in the next few weeks community-wide and be distributed to human service and nonprofit professionals, first responders, business owners and concerned community members. This resource will also be available on the Northern Berkshire United Way website.

"I truly believe that in its brief existence the Collaborative has already made a tangible, positive difference for the residents of the Northern Berkshires, especially around thoughtfully connecting existing regional homeless prevention programming and sheltering services to at-risk and homeless Northern Berkshire families and individuals," said Brad Gordon, executive director of BCRHA.

"The Collaborative has already developed an easy to understand resource card of community resources, which will allow every community member to effectively and efficiently direct households in need to appropriate homelessness prevention and homelessness assistance supports. The Collaborative has also facilitated ongoing communication between human service providers, which has created greater partnering opportunities in the Northern Berkshires, including making office space available in the Northern Berkshires that minimizes transportation barriers and allows for greater access to housing stability and homelessness services for Northern Berkshire residents.

"BCRHA's Tenancy Preservation Program, At-Risk and Homeless Youth Program, and Mediation Programs have all expanded their presence in the Northern Berkshires, which is due in large part to planning that has occurred through the Collaborative. This is a group that is really getting things done."

Louison House continues to operate at or near full capacity for the past year. In the two years before it moved to North Adams, due to the fire that took place in the Adams building in 2016, it was averaging 12 people total in transitional housing. The Northern Berkshire Housing and Homelessness Collaborative will be here not to end homelessness, but to support the needs and issues that arise with such growth. As a community, we are all in this together.

Christa M. Collier is president and CEO of Northern Berkshire United Way, nbunitedway.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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Northern Berkshire United Way
P.O. Box 955, North Adams, MA 01247
Phone: (413) 663-9062