SPRINGFIELD Bunk beds might not seem so important, but at the homeless shelter at 769 Worthington St. they mean a lot now people do not have to sleep on the floor.
That is one of the changes underway at the shelter operated by the Friends of the Homeless, Inc. The shelter opened its doors to invited guests on Wednesday to show its progress, explain its programs and to introduce its new executive director.
William Miller was hired on Nov. 1 to fill the position made by departure of Francis Keough who is now in jail awaiting trail on federal extortion charges. Miller is the former director of shelters and programs for the homeless in Hampshire County.
During a short program following a tour of the building Miller received a glowing recommendation from John Downing, the president and CEO of United Veterans of America, which operates a shelter for homeless veterans in Northampton.
"He [Miller] is the finest shelter director I've ever worked with," Downing said.
Miller said that when he arrived, "people were sleeping on filthy floors without a sheet. Springfield can do better than that. We can do better than that. Massachusetts can do better than that."
The building smelled of various cleaning fluids and the 30 or so people who were on the tour were led through the metal detector and into the area where homeless men sleep every night.
There was a forest of bunk beds where there were once stood several rows of metal frame single beds. Joe White, who managed the facility in the period between Keough's leaving and Miller's arrival, led the tour.
On some of the bunks are plastic bags filled with belongings of some of the men who are sleeping every night at the shelter. White explained that if these people are working with a case manager toward the goal of independent living, they are allowed to reserve a bunk for themselves. He emphasized that the shelter is not a "permanent hotel or a flophouse."
While the shelter has a policy of not turning anyone away, throughout the tour White spoke of how the programs are designed to help people regain their lives and become self-sufficient.
There are no time limits on how long someone can use the shelter and White said that they will accept homeless who aren't sober as long as they are not violent.
With winter here, White added, "We don't want anyone to die out there."
White pointed out a dental facility that is open to anyone who can't afford treatment and a health clinic that is staffed by nurses from Mercy Medical Center before bringing the group upstairs.
On the second floor of the building are 20 single rooms used by men who are in the shelter's transitional program. There are 20 rooms for women in an identical program on the fourth floor. On the third floor, there is a post-detox program run by Phoenix House, a substance abuse rehabilitation program.
White explained there is a real problem with the waiting period between a person successfully under-going a detox program for substance abuse and getting into a support program. The Phoenix House program helps bridge that gap and prevent people from lapsing back into their addiction.
The shelter's transitional program gives the men and women a place to stay while they work with the shelter's case managers in re-establishing their lives. Some are in educational programs, while others work. White said all undergo random drug checks and are given one second chance.
Currently there is a waiting list of 18 men and at least 12 women to enter the transitional program, White said. The average person stays in the program six months and once participants are ready, the shelter works to find them a subsidized apartment.
He showed the group the room of one of the men. White said it wasn't typical of how the other men treat their rooms, but it illustrated how one participant feels about his living space. The room was neat and clean with personal belongings, including a lava light above the bed's headboard and a mini-fountain on a table.
It looked like someone's home.
After the tour, White told Reminder Publications that conditions have improved with Miller's arrival. He said the shelter is also getting better cooperation form other agencies.
"It's a lot of small steps," he said.
Referring to the recent period of bad publicity due to controversies surrounding Keough, Miller said, "We went through hell."
Now however he said staff morale is "terrific."
Speaking several days after the tour, Miller said one of his first changes was to hire an over-night on-site manager for the shelter a position that was lacking in the previous administration.
He also met with other service providers to the homeless to repair some of the divisions that have occurred in the past.
"We can't afford to have rifts," he said.
He said that while managing shelters in Hampshire County he heard the "most alarming stories" about the shelter and would not send people to the Friends of the Homeless shelter when he had too many people to house.
He did commend Keough for his policy of never turning anyone way, but he wants to make sure as many people as possible get off the floor for their dignity, comfort and for the safety of all.
Miller believes that the number of homeless in the city is growing, and is looking forward to the planned addition to the shelter that would be built on an adjacent lot. He added that because the people who are homeless include those from communities other than Springfield, other municipalities should consider support the city's efforts to address the problem.
Miller said that if people want to help the homeless at the shelter contibutions of clean socks, washable twin blankets, hats, gloves, mittens and new pillows, as well as monetary donations, would be welcomed.