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Northampton Construction Displaces Unhoused Residents

The city towed one couple’s RV before the parking ban took effect and has asked residents living in tents to pack up their encampment.

By Molly Keller

Construction on the Roundhouse Lot in Northampton, a site adjacent to an encampment of unhoused people under the South Street bridge, was set to begin on Thursday, August 15. Up until Thursday it was unclear to the residents of the encampment whether the city would allow them to remain at the site through construction. 

Pamela Matlock and her husband Eric live in an RV that has been parked in the Roundhouse Lot near the encampment for just under a year, except when they move it to drain the septic system or refill their propane. The city posted signs in the lot on Friday, July 9th for an overnight parking ban, with “7/11” written on a piece of masking tape in the corner, suggesting (somewhat opaquely) that was when the overnight parking ban was set to start.

The Matlocks told The Shoestring that their RV was towed and impounded by the city on the afternoon of July 11th, even though the signage at the time only banned overnight parking. “I had arranged to pick it up Sunday evening when the no overnight parking was set to start,” Pam said. “They had it gone before noon on Sunday.”

Touch the Sky, an advocacy and mutual aid group for unhoused residents in the Pioneer Valley, has spent this week ringing the alarm about the displacement of unhoused people living in the South Street Bridge encampment. In an Instagram post, Touch The Sky said, “Evicting people who are already displaced is gross and inhumane. [The Mayor] originally promised unhoused people there that he would ensure he had another location ready and paid for with electricity before they would have to leave and he has, of course, failed to do this. Construction equipment is already there. If the city has enough money for more bike paths, they have enough to ensure shelter of some sort too.”

The group encouraged followers to call the Mayor and demand that no evictions take place until he “has offered immediate and [long term] covered options for people to relocate to,” that the city pays for towing the RV to an agreed upon alternate location, and that Mayor Narkewicz communicate directly with unhoused residents at the encampment to determine the best course of action. Both Touch the Sky and Mayor Narkewicz did not respond to a request for comment.

Pamela Matlock said she thinks the NPD saw the no parking ban as an “opportunity” to tow their RV. “They’ve just been itching to get rid of us,” she said. Eric Matlock, in his active lawsuit against the City of Northampton and Northampton Police, has alleged that the NPD has been targeting him and his wife for years in retaliation for the public outcry following his violent arrest back in 2017. 

“I didn’t see [the no overnight parking sign] there because we had been staying at the hotel for a few days,” Eric Matlock said, “but a friend took a picture of it and sent it to us.” Since the sign suggested the overnight parking ban was set for July 11 (last Sunday night), Pam made arrangements to move the RV on Sunday. 

They had been staying at a hotel in Hadley, and on Sunday afternoon, “I was literally getting up, I had just said to [Eric], ‘well, if we can’t find a ride in the next little bit we’ll just hop on the bus out,’ and, it was maybe 10 minutes later that I got the message [that the RV had just been towed].”

She said that when she called the police station asking why they’d towed the truck during the day when the sign only banned overnight parking, they explained that the city wanted it gone by Monday. But, Pam said, “other cars were parked in the lot Saturday night all night long, so they can’t claim that [the parking ban] started Saturday night. […] And there were other vehicles in the lot when they were towing us.” Apparently, the police even waited around for one vehicle to be moved by its owner so they could have space to tow the RV. 

The couple also spoke to the challenge of moving the RV, explaining why they hadn’t moved it sooner. “It takes us a whole day to prep down our truck to be able to drive it. That’s our house; that’s literally all of our stuff. I can’t just get in and drive it away […] I mean honestly, I can’t wait to see how much damage they caused by [towing it].” The RV was mostly packed up on Sunday, Pam explained, but, “I don’t know that it was 100% ready to be driving around corners, and shit’s gonna fly out, there’s gonna be dishes on the ground…”

In a recent interview with the Gazette, Narkewicz justified asking the residents of the South Street Bridge encampment to leave by saying, “There’s going to be noise and dust and a lot of work going on, particularly in that corner [where the encampment is located].” He said that the city “tried to be as flexible as possible,” and that “the city did not do anything to disturb (the site) during COVID.” 

While the city may not have actively “disturbed” the South Street Bridge encampment, they also did not provide the at-risk residents with adequate long-term housing options, neither during the peak of the pandemic nor at the present moment. One resident of the encampment and one unhoused man who lives down the road spoke to how they find the options offered in the city infantilizing or otherwise not suited to their needs. Several said they want the city to rent hotel rooms for them during the construction, but the Mayor’s office has not yet indicated any intention to do so.

Cooper, who lives in a tent in the encampment, expressed his frustration at the prospect of having to move. If the Mayor is concerned about the effects of the dust and the noise on the houseless residents there, he asked, “How come he can’t relocate us until the dust and the noise is gone?” Cooper has been unhoused for 3 years and has lived in the South Street Bridge encampment since the winter. He has an injured leg, walks with a cane, and is frequently in pain. He has to live a short distance from downtown so he can access areas to panhandle in during the day.

“We’re just trying to live our life, trying to accomplish our goals,” he said. “I like to do art and photography, but you can’t do that in a tent.” 

When asked whether he knew what time construction would start or whether they would be asked to leave by the city, Cooper said he didn’t know. Spending all day panhandling, he said, makes it hard to stay up to date on that sort of information. 

Around the encampment, there was no signage giving details about construction plans, and as of July 15, there is no information about the project on the Department of Public Works’ website, either. (Northampton DPW declined a request for comment.) While Touch The Sky said in an Instagram post that they had “heard from people in touch with the Mayor’s office that no one will be physically removed,” no one has received this promise in writing. As such, some of the encampment residents, including Cooper and Charles “CJ” Cummings, said on Thursday night that they’d pack up their things just in case. 

Despite all this uncertainty, the construction and potential displacement wasn’t the first thing on everyone’s minds on Thursday night. One member of the encampment community, Dylan Sweet, died of an overdose just over a week ago. His funeral was scheduled for Friday evening and the group had to prepare for that, both emotionally and logistically. They took a group photo, leaving a space for Dylan, and discussed how they would find transportation to Manna Kitchen, where they would shower and get ready, and then go from there to the service. 

KB McConnell, who has been living in the encampment and providing harm reduction resources for the past two weeks, said his primary concern was not the construction; rather, it was helping everyone get through the next 24 hours. He spoke to the trauma and negative health effects inherent to homelessness. While he talked, Kimmy (Sweet’s girlfriend) walked by on her way to find a bathroom; the port-a-potties that were typically in the lot had been removed when the construction fencing went up, so she had to find somewhere else to go. McConnell noted how the lack of a bathroom was a dehumanizing burden for the unhoused encampment residents while they were grieving.

McConnell said, though, that he hopes the attention brought by this potential eviction will also result in stable housing for the people living in the encampment. “[Overdose] deaths don’t need to happen,” he noted, saying that Dylan may have lived if he had access to stable housing and a safe injection site. 

Despite public pressure, the Mayor’s office has not expressed intentions to provide alternate housing or shelter to the residents of the South Street Bridge encampment. Touch the Sky has started a GoFundMe to work towards meeting this need: Money raised will pay for hotel rooms for anyone who wants to leave, resources for anyone that wants to stay, and recovery of the impounded RV. It has raised over $2,000, with the stated goal of raising $15,000.

Molly Keller is a member writer at The Shoestring. She lives in Amherst.

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