Homeless in Greenfield: A home at the Farren?

MY TURN

Greenfield Recorder, February 17, 2021

By PAT HYNES

The Farren Care Center in Montague will soon be vacant. It is still habitable whereas other large vacant buildings left to languish are discouragingly expensive to rehab.

The briefest of letters in the Feb. 10 edition of the Greenfield Recorder is among the more important I have read. Elsie Gilman of Montague writes: “Recently the Recorder and other newspapers …[are] highlighting the plight of the homeless. Now that the Farren in Turners Falls will be vacant soon, why not make that into a county homeless shelter?

Instead of various groups trying to accommodate the homeless, join together staffing, funding, social services, etc. And have enough room for all including singles, couples and families.”

Immediately I thought of Susan (not her real name). I met her on a Saturday in October 2020 when I was attending the weekly 11 a.m. to noon peace and democracy vigil on the Greenfield Common. She was standing on the concrete island of Main Street at the intersection with Federal Street, holding a cardboard sign with a single word — “homeless.” I crossed over to talk with her to see if there was any way to help. I learned she had been sleeping on the floor of a man’s apartment offered to her as shelter, but fled when she began to get pressure for sex in return.

When I met her she was living in a tent with a boyfriend of sorts behind Energy Park near the railroad tracks, but the police had recently picked him up for prior charges. I was gripped by fear for her vulnerability, living in a tent alone in a dark, out-of-the way place with one other homeless person in a nearby tent, whom she felt comfortable with because he was gay.

Each subsequent Saturday late morning we talked — about where she could get free meals, housing before the winter and security from the streets, though very little about her past (she kept that vague). She knew the schedule for church meals in Greenfield, breakfast at ServiceNet Shelter, and a shower at another place I did not recognize. She had applied to ServiceNet Shelter for housing but there were 25 others ahead of her on the waiting list. She applied for jobs at Dunkin Donuts and Dollar Store; her lack of address gave them pause to hire her. Her health care was nonexistent, and I still don’t know how she got pain medication for severe toothache.

We also talked about what hopes she had for herself: a GED and then a certificate from GCC in some area of health care. From my prior experience of coaching someone for the GED math component, I know it is not a piece of cake and would be a setup for failure without intensive tutoring. As the season moved into November I worried about where she would sleep when winter took hold.

Late November, not seeing her at the intersection, I went looking for her tent by the railroad tracks: all I could think about was another woman and man who died in January 2019 in a tent in Greenfield. Susan’s tent was gone. As it turned out, the only help I could give her was some money each Saturday when we met — sometimes for food, often for warmer clothes, and for a second sleeping bag to double up in the cold of her tent.

I will never forget when she nodded toward my companions on the Common at the 11 a.m. to noon vigil with their peace and democracy signs and said, “I like what you’re doing.”

I sent an e-mail to the mayor and her assistant and to church-affiliated people about Susan, a young woman who stood at that intersection signifying many homeless throughout Franklin County. No one responded.

Elsie Gilman’s letter could not be timelier. The Farren Care Center in Montague will soon be vacant. It is still habitable whereas other large vacant buildings left to languish are discouragingly expensive to rehab. Having been a residential care center, the Farren may be more suitable for redesign as housing for those now homeless.

A critically needed exploration of homelessness and call to action, Housing is a Human Right, will be launched on March 27. Planned by Greening Greenfield and Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution, the forum will examine the problem of homelessness in Franklin County and discuss options and opportunities for housing the homeless and creating affordable housing in Franklin County in eight virtual workshops during April and May.

Why not dedicate a workshop to explore the potential reuse of the Farren for housing the homeless, with participants including the owner, person in charge of building maintenance, and a town representative?

Pat Hynes lives in Montague and is a board member of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.