Shedding light on ‘hidden people’
BY MATT MARTINEZ
The Berkshire Eagle
LENOX — “The Hidden People of the Berkshires” are not deliberately hiding; they’re simply so busy scraping together their wages to pay for basic food and barely affordable housing, they can’t show up at meetings to plead to community leaders for relief.
On Sunday, about three dozen local residents gathered at the Lenox Library’s latest in its long-running Distinguished Lecture series. The event focused on those so-called “Hidden People” who remain mostly unseen, even though many work at vital service jobs around the county.
Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct, a southern Berkshires organization that provides emergency assistance, financial aid and affordable housing, explained the importance of making such problems, and the people suffering as a result, more visible.
“If you are not secure in your housing, if you are paying more than 30 percent of your income in rent, you probably don’t have the time to be any more visible than you are,” Ralph said. “To some degree, visibility is a privilege.”
She said many of Construct’s clients are “living paycheck to paycheck, just one crisis away from really being very insecure. To get out to meetings to self-advocate is really asking a lot.”
Economic disparities have gotten worse with the COVID-19 pandemic. Ralph noted that pre-COVID, her organization would provide about $10,000 a year in financial assistance to its clients. It has provided $80,000 since Oct. 1 of last year.
Another speaker on Sunday, Carolyn Valli, CEO of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, said challenges with housing in the county are widespread and growing. Rent and mortgage increases have rendered ineffective many affordable-housing options around the county, with far fewer rental units available than before the pandemic.
“With housing in particular, the invisibility is much broader than you might think,” Valli said. “It’s not just about the homeless. It’s those people that are making 50 percent of the [Area Median Income], a manager of even a retail establishment, that can’t afford housing.”
Habitat for Humanity’s most visible help is the housesit builds with volunteer support, but it also offers financial education and coaching to those who live in them. Among other community-development efforts, the organization is always seeking volunteers, she said.
Kris Rutman, operations manager with Western Massachusetts Labor Action, listed the occupations of some of his organization’s members, including a meal packer for Elder Services of Berkshire County, a certified nursing assistant and a teacher’s aide among many others. To help connect residents with services, Rutman said, the organization does door-to-door canvassing in lower-income neighborhoods, again, the community’s hidden.
“While these occupations are diverse,” Rutman said, “the commonality among our members is the inability to make ends meet.”
Karen Campbell, a member of WMLA, spoke about her experience after moving to Berkshire County. She and her husband faced difficulties with housing. They also faced inadequate wages at their last job at Wendy’s, where they would often work until almost 3 a.m. to clean the store then be back in by 11 a.m. the next morning. They have since found jobs elsewhere.
The organization connected the Campbells to needed resources, such as a lawyer to resolve a dispute with their landlord and the locations of the food pantries around Pittsfield. They also needed help with a high energy bill, she said.
Especially when they had just recently moved to the city from West Springfield, the help was invaluable, she said. The organization even helped her husband get his driver’s license.
For the Campbells, the organization is more like a neighbor down the street, and it’s a place they can direct their neighbors to.
“It’s almost like a library,” Karen Campbell said. “They just have the volunteers and the resources there, and they help you with stuff.”
Harold Campbell, Karen’s husband, said the lesson for anyone who was struggling with their income was simple: reach out to an organization that can help.
“Don’t give up, because there’s still people out there that can help you,” Harold Campbell said.
The leaders of the respective organizations emphasized the need to recruit volunteers, and for people to take an active part in helping with community-oriented solutions. Valli said the county needs “champions for housing” to participate in policy- making at the local level. Many of the services provided by the agencies boil down to one simple idea: neighbors helping neighbors.
“People need to know not to give up their ideals and to not be afraid to roll up their sleeves,” Rutman said. “We can do this. We really can.”
Matt Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s not just about the homeless. It’s those people that are making 50 percent of the [Area Median Income], a manager of even a retail establishment, that can’t afford housing.”
C AROLYN V ALLI , Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity CEO