The Recorder – Greenfield Health Dept. looks to be more proactive on addressing homeless encampments

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GREENFIELD — Local officials began a conversation Wednesday evening on safety and public health concerns about area homeless encampments.

“It’s a multifaceted issue, but it’s an issue that I feel that we need to be engaged in,” Health Director Jennifer Hoffman told the Board of Health, noting engagement with community social service agencies is also important. “We can’t keep saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we’re aware of it,’ or, ‘We’re going to leave it up to this or that.’ I would want to know what the board feels about being more proactive instead of reactive.”

Hoffman told board members she planned to meet Thursday morning with Mayor Roxann Wedegartner, and that Community and Economic Development Director MJ Adams had reached out to several municipalities to find out what approaches others are taking.

Hoffman — who said her department has received many complaints from the community about encampments — explained that code enforcement on temporary housing, in this case tents, would fall under the Health Department’s jurisdiction.

“It’s kind of a multi-group involvement,” Hoffman said, identifying the Police Department, Department of Public Works and various social service agencies as partners in addressing the issue. “Something has to get done.”

Health Inspector Nicole Glabach relayed to board members a recent experience she had playing softball at Green River Park.

“I went to practice a couple weeks ago and a ball went into the woods,” she said. “I went to get it, and it was absolutely trashed.”

Last year, she noted, there wasn’t as much trash and a portable toilet was on site, which alleviated some of the problems.

“We don’t have any trash receptacles down there, either,” Glabach said. “My biggest concern is someone’s kid running in there. They’re not going to know to step over a needle or somebody’s bathroom area.”

Hoffman told board members she is expecting delivery of a portable toilet. She had also reached out to the Department of Public Works about having trash receptacles placed in the area as well.

“It is a concern,” she said. “There are a lot of needles there.”

As for code enforcement, the Health Department would be seeking support from the Board of Health, she explained. Beyond that, Hoffman said there are other solutions the board could consider, one of which is further engaging social service agencies, “with the mayor’s blessing.”

“Doing nothing is not working, and saying we’re going to wait on somebody else to do something isn’t working,” Hoffman said. “We need to find something that is working.”

She noted the city has seen an increase in the homeless population for a variety of reasons, in part because of the number of social services it has to offer. The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to more people losing their homes, according to Hoffman.

“As a Health Department … we don’t like to react to a problem,” Hoffman said. “We like to be proactive so we can work on it and get a grounding on a situation.”

Board of Health member Alyssa Valbona said she was glad to hear Hoffman would be meeting with city officials to discuss potential solutions. She acknowledged that, like many other industries, social service agencies are understaffed.

“We want to give people options when they want them and when they feel ready for them,” Valbona said.

She also agreed with Hoffman that she would prefer to see the city take a proactive approach to the issue.

“I do feel like this is a thing that bubbles up as the weather gets nice, because all of a sudden people can see their unhoused neighbors again,” Valbona said. “People who don’t have homes are our neighbors, and they’re our community members. I’m really happy to hear that’s the approach we’re taking.”

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