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'I don't do shelters': How people without homes survive outside

In the kitchen at the South Community Food Pantry in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 52-year-old Tony Mullen is slicing open packages of frozen cooked pork, which he heats in the oven. Later, he’ll warm it up on a campfire.

"We’ll eat it tonight. Maybe tomorrow — breakfast." Mullen said. "Feeds four of us."

He and three other men sleep in tents near each other in Springside Park. Mullen gets food at the pantry, but he also volunteers.

"Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Five days a week," he said.

Despite the sciatica he suffers, Mullen is hard to keep up with. He skitters around the pantry, pushing a cooler, carrying boxes of food or moving gallons of milk delivered by another volunteer, Gretchen Debartolo.

"Tony is like a star volunteer," she said. "I’m telling you, I don’t know what we’d do without him."

Besides volunteering, he does side jobs to make money, such as landscaping, painting or roofing.

On a cigarette break outside the pantry, he described his home — his tent.

"Twenty feet by 14 feet wide. I got three end tables. Cabinets," he said. "I got a 12-by-3 bed. It’s a pallet. I got milk crates under it, so I’m not on the ground."

His mattress is thin, but he has quilts and three sleeping bags.

Tony Mullen, a volunteer at the South Community Food Pantry in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, cooks some pork. He'll heat it up on a campfire for dinner, and maybe breakfast, outside his tent in a city park. He plans to share it with others who are sleeping in tents near his.
Nancy Eve Cohen
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NEPM
Tony Mullen, a volunteer at the South Community Food Pantry in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, cooks some pork. He'll heat it up on a campfire for dinner, and maybe breakfast, outside his tent in a city park. He plans to share it with others who are sleeping in tents near his.

Mullen talks about his setup with pride, but he doesn’t want to sleep outside. He had an apartment not long ago, but he said he had trouble with the guy he was renting from, so he moved out. But not to a shelter.

"I don't do shelters," he said.

When asked about getting housing, he said. "The housing thing I have to get, but I just don’t do appointments. I make an appointment and I don’t follow through with it.”

Mullen said he has been sleeping outside on and off for 20 years.

'Are we safe on Abbott Street anymore?'

In western Massachusetts, the yearly "Point In Time" survey of people without homes counted 178 individuals in 2022 without shelter in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties. They sleep outside in parks or private land, curled up in cars, outside storefronts or inside abandoned buildings.

The number of people sleeping at Springside Park spiked to about 30 in the summer of 2020, according to the city. Now it’s down to four. In the warmer weather, it increases.

At a Pittsfield City Council meeting in late September, some residents, like Elizabeth Kulas, who lives near Springside Park, spoke out about safety concerns there. She and others have suggested that people in the park be moved.

"The little girl on the end of the Abbott Street took her dog into the park and found somebody comatose on the side of the dog path.  Then we heard about a suicide in the park," Kulas told council members. "And then one of my neighbors found someone sleeping on her property in the morning. Are we safe on Abbott Street anymore? We don’t think so."

Jim McGrath, who is in charge of Pittsfield’s parks, said people who are living in the parks are "generally not dangerous."

"There have been very, very, very few instances where safety and security of other park patrons is jeopardized because of unhoused individuals in our parks," he said. "They just simply want to be left alone and keep to themselves." 

People without homes used to have more options, such as staying on someone’s couch. But with COVID-19 risks, people are less likely to offer. Affordable housing is harder to find, and the pandemic has made it harder on mental health.

McGrath said camping in city parks is not allowed, but he understands that the past few years have been extremely tough.

"We let folks know that it's not safe for them to be in the park and we don't want them to be in the park. But we understand that they're in a situation where that may be their only landing place," he said.

McGrath and his team bring them laminated lists of housing and food resources, drug and alcohol hotlines, and places where people can get counseling. He said if those camping out want help moving, he offers some city assistance.

"We try to come at it with empathetic eyes and a caring heart," he said.

'People stress me out. I can't sleep. I can't get comfortable in a cot'

At the food pantry, volunteers are handing out hot oatmeal, breakfast sandwiches, coffee and donuts.

Standing outside, 25-year-old Skylar Jeffrey is eating a ham, cheese and egg sandwich on a bagel. She said she has been sleeping in her car for more than a month — first in Worcester, then onto Pittsfield, with her boyfriend, MJ.

"Him and I are actually job hunting today," Jeffrey said. "And then once we get a job we are just going to save money and try to get a place, because winter’s coming."

A spot outside Berkshire Athenaeum, the public library in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where people without homes sleep outside.
Nancy Eve Cohen
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NEPM
A spot outside Berkshire Athenaeum, the public library in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where people without homes sleep outside.

Eating with them is, MJ’s aunt, 33-year-old Brandi Raymond. She sleeps outside at several places.

"Library. Jim’s House of Shoes. Wherever [I] don’t get kicked out," she said.

That's outside the closed shoe store.

"There’s like a little cubby.  It’s like a wind blocker and it has carpet, so it’s comfortable and warm," Raymond said.

She would like to get a heavier sleeping bag, one that would cover her head. Like Mullen, she doesn’t like to stay in the shelter — in part because of the restrictions.

"You only get like four smoke breaks," Raymond said. "I’m a smoker, especially when people stress me out.  People stress me out. I can’t sleep. I can’t get comfortable in the cot."

It’s better outdoors, she said.

"I can sleep like more comfortable outside because I can do whatever the hell I want when I want," Raymond said.

When she gets some money, Raymond said, she’ll stay in a hotel for a while with a friend.

ServiceNet runs the only shelter for individuals in Pittsfield, at the former St. Joseph’s High School. There are beds for 50. It’s nearly filled every night except in the summer, according to Jay Sachetti, the organization's senior vice president of shelter and housing. He said they don’t turn people away when it’s really cold.

Sacchetti said most people who are homeless have had some kind of trauma event in their life that has injured them — that has gotten them to where they are.

"If they are looking for housing and they present with some mental health issues, landlords are a lot less likely to rent. They’ll get evicted more easily from housing. There could be a paranoid quality to it. They’re afraid to enter into the process of trying to find housing," he said.

Sachetti said building trust with people so they will accept help is slow work. But his staff keeps at it. And he said people have the right not to accept help.

"You can't make anybody do anything," Sachetti said. "If people want help, we're able to kind of help facilitate that for them. But, you know, a great many of these people don't."

Pablo Robins folds up his blanket where he slept outside the Berkshire Athenaeum, the public library in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Pablo Robins folds up his blanket where he slept outside the Berkshire Athenaeum, the public library in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Pablo Robins is just waking up. The 31-year-old points to a jumble of bedding in front of the Berkshire Athenaeum, the city library. He said he has been coming here for about two years, but not every night.

"I like to move around a lot. It’s kind of like my thing," he said.

Robins folds up his quilt neatly and explains how he keeps warm

"I used the wool blanket on the inside to build the heat and this thick quilt made it so the heat stayed in," he said.

Robins said he’ll stay in the shelter only if it gets really cold. He said he can’t fall asleep there because his mind won’t shut off about the challenges of life.

Also, he sees every night he survives outside as a victory.

Alex Reczkowski, library director of the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, stands in front of the library, where people without homes sometimes sleep.
Nancy Eve Cohen
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NEPM
Alex Reczkowski, library director of the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, stands in front of the library, where people without homes sometimes sleep.

"It’s like having confirmation that you are stronger than you thought or other people might think. And a lot of this is just will power and the mindset and the focus to keep going," he said.

Robins said this summer the library became a haven for the people without homes. Alex Reczkowski, the director of the library, said he doesn’t push people away. Instead, he and his staff have done what libraries do — connect people to resources.

"ServiceNet has more of their housing caseworkers coming to the library on a regular basis, talking with people, working with people one-on-one. We've had Better Life Partners coming here on a weekly basis. They're a recovery support network. We've had Sevita health coming. CHP brings their health van twice a month. Berkshire Harm Reduction brings a health van," he said.

But building relationships isn’t always easy. Librarians have to remind people who sleep outside not to smoke in front of the doorway, or play music too loud and not to do drugs in the open. But they still get complaints from some patrons.

"People are angry that we won't call the police and arrest everyone, although I'm not sure what the arrestable offense is, right? Standing in front of the library, maybe using the Wi-Fi on your phone? Who is to say that that's using the library properly?" he said.

And Reczkowski said he tries to think about what it would be like if he were sleeping in front of the library.

"If we have any hope for having a stronger community with fewer people without a home, we need to build that community," he said. "We need to build those relationships."

After finishing his volunteer shift at the South Community Food Pantry in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Tony Mullen bicycles back to his tent in a city park. He carries bags of food for himself and others.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
After finishing his volunteer shift at the South Community Food Pantry in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Tony Mullen bicycles back to his tent in a city park. He carries bags of food for himself and others.

Back at the food pantry, Tony Mullen explains how he insulates the inside of his tent for the winter.

"I’m putting up branches up and over and then I’m taking blankets and stapling it to branches," he said. "The outside is good because I have tarps over it."

With his shift done for the day, he loads his bicycle handles with plastic bags of food — the cooked meat that he’ll warm on a fire and share with others — and cupcakes he is bringing to children who have a home, but who lost their father.

Although he may not have a home with a door and a roof, Mullen has people. That and the know-how to survive, for now.

Full disclosure: ServiceNet is among the organizations that donate to New England Public Media. Funding relationships do not influence our news coverage.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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