|MCLA Considering Temporary Homeless Housing on Campus |
|By Jack Guerino, iBerkshires Staff|
04:12PM / Friday, March 24, 2023
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is considering turning the vacant Berkshire Towers dorm into a temporary homeless shelter.
President James Birge said on Friday that the college is considering a partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development that would supply needed housing for 50 homeless families.
"I look at the mission of the institution, and we talk about educating students to be responsible citizens," Birge said. "I think this models that mission."
Birge said residents would be mostly younger families. He assumed 50 families would generate 25 school-aged children in the Berkshire Towers.
He said the dorms would house residents, many of whom have been displaced and forced to leave the region.
"It brings people back to Berkshire County. Since I've been here, I've talked about how does this institution help to bring people to Berkshire County?" he said. "Ideally through students graduating and staying here, but this is one of the ways that we kind of bring Berkshire County people home at least temporarily."
Birge said there is no specific focus and other displaced families new to the commonwealth would be welcomed along with immigrants.
Gov. Maura Healey's recent supplemental spending bill represents a commitment to providing affordable housing, he said. Her administration has reached out to various state universities including MCLA.
He said Salem State University and Massachusetts Maritime Academy are already in the program.
"So I think it's more likely than not that we'll move forward with it," he said. "But again once we see an agreement we may have more questions."
This initiative was first discussed with MCLA's Board of Trustees in an Executive Session at the Nov. 17 meeting and then again at the board's Feb. 9 meeting. Since then, there have been conversations with city and school district officials around this potential partnership, said Birge.
Some of the nuances of the partnership have yet to be revealed to the college including a financial element. At this moment in time, Birge did not have a number.
"That building is empty because we're still emerging from the pandemic," he said. "There's a financial benefit to this."
He added that the lease would be for 18 months and the college would re-evaluate the agreement at that time. He assumed there would be an exit clause but noted it is probably something the college would be hesitant to activate.
MCLA's enrolment has decreased and currently, Berkshire Towers is empty and closed.
Birge said the decision to close the towers was less about decreased enrollment but triggered by students who wanted to be consolidated closer to the heart of the campus at Hoosac Hall and the Townhouses.
"We had students in all three resident areas. But they weren't completely filled," he said. "Students who have been living in Berkshire Towers the previous year had said, 'you know, we'd like to be over at Hoosac because it's close to dining, it's closer to the center of campus.' Even though it was across the street, it was far enough away for them that they felt like they had to go too far to get to the library."
What is a challenge for students makes the building a perfect fit for the program, said Birge who felt the dorm's distance from campus would offer privacy for families.
"This is a building that's across the street from campus, and it's really a self-contained facility," the president said. "It's an ideal location. I think if this were another facility on campus, I'm not sure I'd be supportive of that."
As for the college itself, Birge said there will be little impact.
Birge only had the "broad strokes" of the agreement but knew DHCD would partner with a service center, possibly ServiceNet out of Northampton. He said college dining services and security would not be impacted.
"They would actually operate the facility," he said. "They would operate it, and they would staff it. Although my hope is that there will be opportunities for MCLA students to do internships or volunteer work there."
Birge did underline that the relationship would be temporary. He was happy to say the college's enrollment has steadily increased with this most recent class 13 percent larger than the one prior. He also pointed to indicators within the application process that reflected positive trends, such as an increase in submitted applications of 10 percent.
But he did admit the college is still transitioning out of the pandemic and the proposed arrangement could be a benefit to all involved.
Birge did not have a clear timeline but anticipated, if the school were to go through with the agreement, that families could move in in the spring or early summer.
The decision is also his own.
"It's ultimately the administration's decision," he said. "I've kept the board informed of the things that we're doing, I had conversations with the mayor. But ultimately it's the decision of the president."
He said some elected officials have asked questions and Birge affirmed that he would be happy to arrange a meeting between the college and DHCD to go over the agreement.
But at the current state of play, Birge said the response has been mostly positive.
"We've had a very positive response from folks on campus, and we've had a lot of positive responses from community partners, and community agencies in the area," he said. "We've had a couple of individuals who've written to say this is a really bad idea. But at this point it really it's in single digits."
"It might change as more people read about it, and I certainly want to consider those things," he said. "But I also know institutions should do things that are aligned with their mission and they should be responsive to the needs of communities. That's the historic purpose of American higher education and right now our communities need these things."