I-Team: Life in a Chicopee homeless encampment during the cold, winter months

I-Team

CHICOPEE, Mass (WWLP) – More than 150 people spend their nights in a homeless shelter run by the non-profit organization Friends of the Homeless in Springfield. 

Many others decide to stay outside in the elements in a homeless encampment comprised of tiny tents. The 22News I-Team wanted to see first-hand what it’s like to live in one of those encampments.

We also talked with police about the legality and safety of living outside, especially with snow already on the ground in western Massachusetts. Larry Ryan blames his homelessness on a failed relationship three-years-ago. 

“I’ve been out here about three years,” Ryan said. “Winter, summer, spring.” 

A shack that’s made of a mixture of plywood and tarps is what Larry calls home. He doesn’t have running water. If it gets too cold, he fires up a propane heater. In many respects, Larry has it good. Chicopee Police officer Mike Wilk showed the 22News I-Team another, nearby homeless encampment along the Connecticut River. 

“They have the tents, they have their fire, portable cooking units, coolers. They have things set up,” Chicopee Police officer Mike Wilk said. 

About five or six tents lined the riverbank on what’s considered public lands. The I-Team learned that under state law it’s perfectly legal for the homeless to set up their outdoor housing there. But in order to get there, they often cross-posted, private property – or railroad tracks, which is illegal, not to mention dangerous. 

“One of the homeless people who live down here has actually been struck twice,” Wilk said.   

Officers patrol the encampments to ensure there isn’t illegal activity. They also offer the men and women who live there a ride to a shelter when the temperature dips dangerously low, but that doesn’t mean they will accept that offer. 

“If somebody has sunk to that point, you know we see young people doing that, that’s tough,” Bill Miller at Friends of the Homeless told 22News.

Miller told the I-Team that on any given night – about 160 people stay at the Worthington Street facility. They get a place to sleep for the night and a social worker assesses their individual needs in hopes of fixing the root causes of their homelessness – because they often struggle with disabling conditions such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability. Miller calls them survivors. 

“It’s impressive to me that if all you have left fits in a drawer under a bunk and you get up and keep plugging away the next day, I mean you’re really go after something,” Miller said. 

As for Ryan, he told 22News he doesn’t plan to seek help at the shelter. He said they can’t help him. 

“It sucks. Bottom line, it sucks.” 

Volunteer or donate to Friends of the Homeless 

755 Worthington Street, Springfield, MA  01105 

Call: (413) 732-3069   

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