|Birge Halts Family Shelter Proposal at MCLA |
|Staff Reports, iBerkshires Staff|
03:50PM / Tuesday, May 09, 2023
|The Berkshire Towers had been under consideration by the state as a temporary shelter for homeless families. |
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A proposal to shelter homeless families on the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is off the table.
In a message to the campus community on Tuesday, President James Birge said that "after extensive consideration," he was halting discussions about the use of the Berkshire Towers dormitories on Church Street as a temporary shelter.
"Upon reflection, the length of the long-term lease and the ongoing operational questions and concerns led me to make the decision that MCLA will not move forward in partnership with the Department of Housing and Community Development," he wrote. "It is my hope that the consideration of this proposal, although not implemented, will motivate a broader and comprehensive dialog regarding family housing in the Berkshires."
The DHCD has been reviewing state facilities for use as shelters in light of rising rents and a shortage of suitable housing. Salem State University agreed to turn over part of its campus (which it is planning sell) for shelter use last year.
The agreement would have been for up to 18 months as transitional temporary shelter for families and would have pumped up to $2.7 million in the college's coffers.
School officials had already been in discussions with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on funding support and ServiceNet, which would have been contracted to operate the shelter, appears to have been advertising for positions in North Adams.
But local leadership has been wary about the proposal, saying there were too many unanswered questions, including how 50 to 75 families might impact city services and schools. Residents raised concerns about the influx out-of-town people and social media was rife with postings about presumed crime and drug use.
Birge noted that the feedback had been "supportive and critical."
"As the president of a liberal arts institution with a mission to promote responsible citizenship, I have an obligation to at least consider the state's proposal in its effort to address the critical need for families to have more stable housing," he wrote. "Additionally, as a public institution, it was our obligation to consider an issue that is at the heart of the new Governor's legislative agenda particularly in light of the pressing need for families across the Commonwealth and in the Berkshires to have access to affordable, safe housing."
The president said he admired and respected Gov. Maura Healey's approach and regretted "that some people made incorrect assumptions related to the college and the use of Berkshire Towers for a long-term lease. ...
"Differing and conflicting opinions and thoughts often arise when controversial societal issues are on the table."
The funding had been figured into the fiscal 2024 budget, according to a presentation at the last board of trustees meeting. Birge said the department leaders would continue to "identify additional operating efficiencies" but that the college was in a "strong financial position."
The towers' 312 beds had been vacant for the last year or so because of a drop in enrollment pegged to the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, the fall enrollment is up 17 percent over last year and Birge said there has been an increase in students wanting to live on campus.
"We continue to turn the tide on a pandemic-driven enrollment decline and will need to use Berkshire Towers soon as enrollment grows," he said. "Additionally, having Berkshire Towers available means there is potential for additional short-term summer conferencing and rental opportunities to augment revenue."
The college has frequently rented out the dorms outside of the college term.