North Quabbin Community Coalition at forefront of wrestling with homelessness

  • North Quabbin Community Coalition Youth and Family Engagement Coordinator Amanda Mankowsky, left, and Executive Director Heather Bialecki-Canning discuss the many issues impacting homelessness in the region. For the Athol Daily News/Greg Vine

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 9/27/2022 11:56:38 AM
Modified: 9/27/2022 11:55:45 AM

(Editor: First in a series)

ATHOL — In recent months, the issue of homelessness has arisen during meetings of Athol’s Downtown Development Committee and its Board of Health. It was also raised in a meeting of representatives of various organizations and municipal departments put together by the town’s Department of Health.

Homelessness isn’t new to North Quabbin, but relatively rapid economic development in recent years, which has in turn attracted workers and their families to the area, seems to have exacerbated the problem, along with the lack of affordable housing and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Locally, one of the agencies that deals most directly with the homeless, and which is among those leading the effort to deal with it, is the North Quabbin Community Coalition.

The Athol Daily News recently sat down with NQCC Executive Director Heather Bialecki-Canning and Amanda Mankowsky, the group’s Youth and Family Engagement Coordinator and point person on housing, to discuss the issue.

Bialecki-Canning said the issue in North Quabbin grew bigger and more acute as the region, and the rest of the country, navigated its way through the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s a huge problem,” she said. “We saw a lot of things get put on hold during COVID for multiple reasons. Evictions were put on hold, but also people who were typically up-to-date with bills were financially impacted by COVID, so they lost housing due to lost wages — things like that.

“There was a lot of COVID relief that came, but it didn’t necessarily trickle into people’s securing their housing. There were unexpected costs, like the inflation that we’re experiencing now, as well as heating oil costs; those kinds of things that have all increased.”

Bialecki-Canning said the NQCC is trying to tackle the issue from a number of directions.

“From the coalition’s perspective, the issue is just so multipronged because we have folks who would typically be able to afford some of our local housing stock, but because of the price of local real estate right now, it’s just unattainable. You’re seeing a lot of housing being scooped up by folks from outside the region moving in. So, many folks are just staying where they are because they can’t afford to move into a home or more sustainable housing.

“The other thing is that there are just no vacancies to be found. Even folks that have the means or have resources to get them into apartments, there simply are no apartments. Then the ones that do come available often have a caveat; some have CORI restrictions on what your background is, credit restrictions on what your background is, as well as things like pets, children — all of those things.”

Bialecki-Canning said that, in a very real sense, it’s a “landlord’s world.”

“They get their pick, because the minute there is a vacancy, they get so many applicants. So, it’s definitely been challenging. And the eviction process, after the moratorium on that, is now moving forward. We are hearing from a lot more folks that their eviction process has now gone through. Those are the folks we’re now seeing at the door of the coalition, when other resources around the community have been exhausted.”

Asked if more ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) monies should have gone directly to nonprofits that assist individuals and families deal with the financial impact of COVID, rather than to large municipal infrastructure projects, Bialecki-Canning said, “This is probably going to sound colder than it should, but my answer is ‘no,’ because I find that those communities that do invest in themselves, in capital projects, create more sustainable opportunities for folks. We (the NQCC) should absolutely be a thought when someone is considering funding, but when it comes to housing issues, we’re kind of the last resort. We really only want to see folks coming through the coalition door when they’ve already connected with the Career Center and the Salvation Army for food and the Family Resource Center for ongoing support; so that really what they’re looking for is about improving their quality of life, not just meeting their basic needs. Unfortunately, that’s not where we’re at right now. We’re seeing a lot of people where that money was just not substantial enough to meet the need they had, or it wasn’t sustainable.

“Some of the funding that came through from the state, as far as supporting individuals, was a little tricky,” Bialecki-Canning continued. “Food stamp increases were amazing; we heard a lot of families benefited from that. We heard mixed reviews, as far as the community goes, as far as increased money in people’s pockets. It’s a double-edged sword. You’re able to get your needs met. But you’re also able to follow up on temptations and other things. So, it’s created a number of issues around here.”

She added that the coalition handles issues for people in the community from cradle to grave.

“So we’re also seeing things like seniors who really want to be able to age in place,” she said. “They’re having trouble with that because of rising costs and other issues.

“So, to answer your question in the most roundabout way possible,” said Bialecki-Canning with a smile, “I do think capital investments are necessary to be able to sustain the community as a whole, to create the opportunities for those seniors to be able to stay local in maybe a senior housing development, or that kind of thing.”

In February, Athol’s Selectboard voted to use $400,000 in ARPA funding for the redevelopment of the former Ellen Bigelow and Riverbend schools. Plans call for the schools to be transformed into a 53-unit affordable and senior housing complex. The overall cost of the project is estimated at around $20 million.

Next up: Meeting the needs

While the causes of homelessness in North Quabbin may be apparent, how best to meet needs of the homeless is another issue altogether. That topic will be discussed in the next installment of this series of reports.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com


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