Ten Minutes with Cara Davis
Construct, Inc’s director, retiring after 27 years of helping prevent homelessness
Photo by Megan Haley
Cara Davis remembers when the homeless had only one refuge in the Berkshires—an old motel called Fitch’s in Pittsfield. Driven by this, she began working with Construct, Inc. and was involved in the first of what is now an annual fundraising walk to prevent homelessness. Construct subsequently established Project Home, a transitional housing service program, and two homes for men and women. It helps stabilize 500 households and houses 35 homeless men and women annually in south county—yet the demand keeps growing.
What is the scenario that brings a person to this point in the Berkshires?
Housing costs are high and wages are low, so there’s a gap. They’re paying 50 to 75 percent of their income toward housing. It should be around 30. It’s almost impossible to do that here. They end up over their heads and living one paycheck away from an eviction. Then something happens: A person gets sick; a child gets sick. It could be alcohol. It could be drug addiction. It could be domestic violence. It could be anything.
What drew you to doing this?
It chose me. I didn’t choose it. A young woman on my street at the time in Stockbridge while I was in seminary became homeless and was living in her car. Late one night, she saw my light on and it was this time of year, it was getting cold. She was freezing in her car. So she came knocking on my door. I invited her in. She was clearly struggling. We talked for a long time and she fell asleep on the couch. The next day, I took her around to try to find affordable housing. She had a little job but it wasn’t enough to pay for an apartment.
At that time, I had a concept of a place where someone like this young woman could live while she sought to increase her income, getting education, money management, health, mental health, whatever it was she needed to succeed and thrive. I was doing my fellowship at the Stockbridge Congregational Church, and in talking with the pastor there, I was led to Construct. At the time, they were doing the Section 8 program, which was very significant in addressing affordable housing, but homelessness was not anything that they had the capacity to deal with. That’s why it was kind of a synchronistic meeting.
Is there a wait for Construct’s two homes in Great Barrington?
There is a large waiting list. Individuals stay, on average, three to seven months. During that time, most are able to increase their income, save money, and look for housing. These are single individuals. Construct tries to keep families in their apartments by providing services, giving a little bit of financial support, and hooking them up with other resources. If we can salvage their housing, that’s preferable because they can stay in the school system and near friends and family.
What are the needs now?
We need more affordable housing, we need jobs that pay a living wage, and we need to offer upper mobility so that people can move from rental housing to home ownership, freeing affordable housing for new people needing it. Also, services. Over the years, we’ve seen a drain in funding for mental-health and substance-abuse services. We’re just now getting it back. This opioid epidemic that is happening, not just in Berkshire County but all over, has created an awareness that we need better services.
Where are the homeless in the Berkshires?
In vehicles. The police know and leave them alone. They’re not causing any harm. Other homeless might find somebody who has a recreational vehicle in their backyard. They might tent. They’ll tent anywhere, in Beartown, along the railroad tracks, by Green River, around Lake Mansfield, in the backyard of their friend or family member. Pets are a tough one. Most landlords don’t want a pet, and many people, especially people who are alone who are elderly or disabled, want their pet. Their pet means more to them than anything. But they can’t come into shelter with a pet. If I had a wish, I would wish that some kennels we have around might donate space for a homeless pet.
Is it often that you have that sort of need?
This summer we had at least four people living in their vehicles with their dogs.
Were they young?
No, they were older: 50s, 60s, 70s.
What are other needs?
For employers to be open-minded. Some of our people might not have great records for employment or they might have something that is a barrier to employment, like a previous police record, but it might be way in the past. It’s still there, so it becomes difficult for them to get a job or housing.
I would love to create a cluster of tiny houses for the chronic homeless, possibly as a challenge for the interfaith community. I envision each congregation taking on a project; it would cost $10,000 or $15,000 to build with volunteers. This would be a good solution.
What’s next after retiring November 30, 2016?
I’m going to be quiet for a couple months and listen for where I’m being called for the next leg of my journey. I would love to grow lavender and have a pig and four goats and a dozen chickens and practice contemplative prayer and perhaps do some spiritual direction. That’s all.