It’s Time For a New Flag—The Berkshire Edge
By Sheela Clary
“There’s an 80-year-old woman living at the shelter because her landlord raised her rent and she couldn’t afford it. That’s gonna be all of us. When the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine comes down, perhaps we should replace it with a black circle and square on a bright red background, the international sign for an SOS.”
Almost every house and business along Route 102 in West Stockbridge is flying the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Locals are also supporting on-the-ground efforts, such as the heroic ones undertaken by Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen to feed millions of meals to Ukraine’s beleaguered population, and the million-plus refugees who have fled their home country.
But right here in our own bucolic corner of the world, another high-stakes crisis is playing out, for long-term renters. Units are being sold out from under tenants, and there is no place else to go. The housing waitlist for Construct, South County’s rental and affordable housing assistance agency, is up to more than 800, a nearly 25 percent jump from just three months ago. Renters are being exiled because they no longer have a place in our economic structure. The median income for our homeowners, according to the 2020 Housing Needs Assessment, was 120 percent higher than the median income for our renters.
If you listen to enough stories from those who are struggling to continue to rent homes here, flags might start to remind you of tents. That’s where many families could very well be living, and soon. Chefs, nurses, teachers, electricians, therapists, single moms, retirees, and married couples are exiled from their hometowns, or still living within them in unstable housing situations that could end any month. Some are homeless already. As far as Courtney Kimball, program manager at Construct, is aware, at least five people are living in tents in the center of Great Barrington. A woman is living in her car. Kimball speaks every day to people trying desperately to ward off that fate.
What’s the face of imminent homelessness in the Best Small Town in America? She has a face shaped like a big heart. I met her in 2011, when she was a sophomore at Monument Mountain Regional High School. She was very quiet, and easy to overlook in a class full of rowdy boys. “Maggie” remained an enigma until one morning in March, when it was her turn to present for our Share an Interest project. Then, for 10 minutes or so, she took center stage and my ungovernable class held its collective breath as she slowly clicked through a series of alternately brilliant and stark photographs she’d taken of our sunsets, hills, and streams.
That summer I partnered with a friend to send Maggie to art camp. Back then, it seemed possible that one week of enrichment might, as more expansive summer experiences do for more privileged kids, give her a leg-up in the college application process. She enjoyed the camp, but it likely just gave her false hope, as did her College Prep classes. By junior year she was working in a grocery store, and after graduation she simply upped her hours. No one in her family had gone to college, and there was no one outside of it to painstakingly mentor her through the lengthy, trying process of applying to schools, to say nothing of being matriculated into one.
Her class’ valedictorian spoke in her graduation speech of bright futures for all, but Maggie’s trajectory since high school has been mostly downward, and she will have nowhere to go in two-and-a-half months’ time. She has to be out of her apartment because the landlord wants to get in on the hot real estate market.
Maggie’s only option, as she sees it now, is to move in with her sister who lives in North County. “Not that she has a lot of space, but she said that she wouldn’t let me go homeless,” she said. But even that would be a temporary fix. Her sister — along with two children — has already been served a notice to vacate because her landlord is turning the place into a cannabis dispensary.
If a voice from the future had knocked on the door of my 2011 classroom and predicted that one of the kids in Period B English would be homeless at the age of 26, I’d have been incredulous. But Maggie is only one among many, and since she has no dependents, hers is not the most dire situation. Construct’s Kimball has people with Section 8 [federally subsidized housing] vouchers whom she can’t find housing for, even with the rent paid. If no apartments become available, they will lose the vouchers. One client waited six years to obtain it, the other waited 10.
“I can’t do anything with them,” she told me. “Even people who make good money can’t find anything. There’s an 80-year-old woman living at the shelter because her landlord raised her rent and she couldn’t afford it. That’s gonna be all of us.”