FFI’s main office is in Greenfield, MA, population just under 18,000. With limited housing resources available, residents facing homelessness will often pitch tents in open spaces in the woods on the edge of town during the summer. In June, some local residents pitched tents on the Town Common in the center of town. FFI summer intern Grace Reeder shares some insights from her work with us about what she learned when a largely invisible crisis became visible, right outside our office window.
During my time this summer as an intern at FFI, the Greenfield Town Common, a small plot of land in the center of Downtown Greenfield, and just across the street from FFI’s headquarters, became a temporary home for several local families and individuals experiencing homelessness. The number of people residing on the Common grew from 2 at the beginning of the summer to about 20 by the time they were forced to leave and the Common was closed. Given the centrality of its location, it had become a hot topic of debate in the area. Some residents began donating items like gift cards, food, and camping equipment, while others felt this encouraged people to “camp out” on the Common. Initially, the mayor of Greenfield announced that unlike Greenfield’s other parks and recreation sites, there were no city ordinances that barred people from staying on the Common overnight. Ultimately, a vote by the Greenfield Board of Health, citing state health regulations, determined that the people who were living on the Common had to move.
This situation required the people residing at the Common to make decisions about where to go next. Their decisions–like decisions all of us make–included weighing the pros and cons of different options in the context of a universal drive for wellbeing–what FFI defines as the essential needs and experiences for health and hope. The Five Domains of Wellbeing (social connectedness, stability, safety, mastery, and meaningful access to relevant resources) are interconnected; and sometimes gaining something in one Domain requires giving something up in another. This is the concept of “tradeoffs.” Often, however, people grappling with extreme poverty, violence, trauma, or oppression, are dealing with systems that leave them with limited options to choose for themselves. Many times they have to make a decision that forces them to make small gains at the cost of much larger losses. Frequently, when a policy is developed or implemented, a lot of assumptions are made. The people most directly impacted by the outcomes are not directly consulted about what solutions would work the best. For those living on the Common, many assumptions were made: about who they are, their situation, and what their wants and needs are; about what they would or wouldn’t do, and what was worth it or not worth it to them in relocating. They didn’t feel included in the many conversations happening about them and their lives.
I had the opportunity to discuss with some of the residents who were living on the Common the gains and losses they experienced as a result of this situation. From my conversations with people living on the Common and from the news coverage, it appeared that most local residents would prefer that people not live on the Town Common, and they would prefer not to discuss the multiple intersecting issues at the root of the problem. The centrality of the location has made homelessness an unavoidable topic of discussion, but there is an emphasis on disappearing the problem without finding any long-term solutions.
For many of the women I talked to, the safety they felt while living on the Common was rare. They developed a community among themselves, which in turn provided them with assets in two of the Five Domains of Wellbeing: safety and social connectedness. Some felt safer being able to live with others who could watch their belongings and their backs. Others found a sense of community and belonging. They all looked out for each other, and many of them were very anxious about the thought of being separated from their community–not just the relationships, but the safety it brought. I heard stories of locals intentionally waking them up, throwing job applications at them, urinating on their tents, verbally abusing them, and using other methods of harassment. Despite the harassment, living on the Common was “worth it.” This speaks volumes to how important safety and community were to them. For any of us to move forward and make change successfully, we need to be able to do so without too great a loss; otherwise we’ll be stuck in the cycles we’re living in and may even end up worse off than we were before. Everyone deserves access to wellbeing, including people who are homeless. As one resident told me, the people living at the camp are “voters… [who] have jobs. We’re people.”
When we ask people to relocate, to make the housing or new shelter solution last, we need to also ask and understand–what is most important to you? What would you lose by leaving? How can we keep some of this in place so it’s more “worth it” to live somewhere else? These are the same questions we ask ourselves when we are moving from one place to another. This is why the work FFI does regarding the Five Domains of Wellbeing and tradeoffs is so important. Coming to FFI has helped me to see how change only becomes sustainable when we pay attention to tradeoffs, looking at what is “worth it” and what is not. This is true not only for people experiencing homelessness but for all of us.
After they were forced to leave the Common, The Boston Globe followed up with the “tenters,” allies, social service workers, and city officials.
Greenfield mayor surprises homeless with Friday eviction from town common… – The Boston Globe
Former Greenfield tenters struggle to find shelter – The Boston Globe
Grace Reeder worked as a Capacity Building Intern at the Full Frame Initiative in the summer of 2018. She is a senior at Whittier College majoring in Political Science and Gender Studies. An active member of her campus community, she serves as President of the Whittier chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha Political Science Honor Society and the Violence, Intervention and Prevention Club; the Campus Relations Director for the school Senate; she’s a member of the Model United Nations Club; and she writes for The Quaker Campus, Whittier’s student-run newspaper. A passionate advocate for women’s rights and women’s roles in matters of peace and security, she hopes to work as for the United Nations as an analyst and policy writer on the roles of women and girls in civil conflict.