By Gerry Weiss
Even the darkest clouds of the pandemic have yielded some silver linings, including one for Craig’s Doors (CD) and the unhoused of our area last year. Traditionally, Craig’s Doors provides shelter from November through April, opening in the evening and closing in the morning. Because of COVID, the Federal government released more money to provide shelter and temporary housing. Last year, Craig’s Doors applied for and received enough funding to allow us operate three different sites, one of which, the University Motor Lodge, still houses 20 people. We also rented the Econo Lodge in Hadley for the winter of 2020-2021 as well as space at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society downtown, enabling about 66 people to be sheltered. All three sites were operated around the clock, seven days a week, something CD had never been able to do before. However, with the UU congregation returning to their home downtown on May 1, we had to find yet another site for our 2021-2022 emergency winter shelter. The congregation at the Immanuel Lutheran Church (ILC) gladly opened their doors to us and we are now sheltering 23 men and women from 5:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days/week.
That’s the good news. Craig’s Doors has been fortunate to find houses of worship willing to shelter our guests for the past 13 years, 10 of them at the Amherst Baptist Church near UMass, last year at the UU, and this year at the ILC. However, we fear our luck could run out in the future as we go hat in hand to the houses of worship hoping for a “yes,” especially should COVID cease to be an impediment to church operations. It is also expensive to make (repeatedly) the physical changes required to operate as a shelter, and we have to hire new staff every fall and then let them go every May. It is of course also time consuming to do all the leg work required to close down and set up a shelter anew. And this year, because the ILC kitchen is not certified by the Health Department, we have to rent the kitchen at the UU to make dinners and transport them to the ILC every night. Add to these problems the fact that except for the one year at the UU, our guests have to wait until evening to get out of the cold and must leave in the early morning hours, a far from ideal situation.
The solution would be a permanent shelter in Amherst. It would allow us to operate 24/7, maintain staff, not have to worry where we’ll be each year, have our own kitchen, and move our offices to it, so we’d be in one place. The good news is that we have found a site for sale that looks nearly perfect. The trick of course is money. There is a possibility that the Town would either buy the building or fund us to buy the building with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds allocated to the Town of Amherst. ($11,933,556).
Our Town Manager Paul Bockelman has set aside approximately $1 million of those funds to pay for “transitional housing and homeless solutions.” The asking price of the site we’ve found is less than $1 million. However, the final decision on how that $1 million will be spent is up to Town Hall and so far, they have not seemed enthusiastic about our proposal. The Department of Housing and Community Development, which funnels to us most of the funds Craig’s Doors uses to operate each year, is very excited by this proposal and has offered their expertise and additional funding if we should be able to purchase the site. We have our fingers crossed that Town Hall will see this opportunity as the solution we’ve been looking for, for so many years. I should add here that Paul Bockelman, at the urging of the Town Council, formed a Homelessness and Rehousing Working Group several months ago. The group finished their work and have submitted an interim report that included recommendations for a permanent shelter and increased housing solutions for the unhoused. Obtaining both would be the ideal outcome.