Controversial Fitchburg homeless shelter to shut down
The only emergency homeless shelter in Fitchburg, which previously came under scrutiny over complaints of alleged mistreatment of guests, will shut down at the end of March.
Judith Nest Pasierb, executive director of Our Father's House, which runs the shelter, informed Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale via email this week that the state will not renew the shelter's contract. She issued a similar statement to WBUR.
"Please understand, Our Father's House is closing the Shelter due to not being chosen with a new contract from the MA Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) effective April 1, 2023," the statement said. "The closing deeply affects Our Father's House and the compassion that we have for sheltering homeless men and women, as well as providing case management, meals, clothing and personal care items."
DHCD funds adult emergency homeless shelters, but the state agency does not operate them. It does operate the state's family shelter system.
In 2021, Kevin MacLean stepped down as director of homeless initiatives for Our Father's House and overseer of the shelter's daily operations, amid longstanding allegations he abused guests. Police and independent investigations cleared him.
Tara Rivera, a community advocate who works with people experiencing substance use issues and homelessness in the Fitchburg area, said complaints of assaults, harassment and drug use by some workers at the shelter have continued over the last two years. She said she's largely relieved it's closing.
"The first thought that came to mind was, 'thank God,' because that means the abuse and neglect of our clients are going to end. ... You think about the word shelter. It's supposed to be a safe place. It's not a safe place. It's a toxic environment," Rivera said. "However, then there's a concern about all of those shelter beds and now where are these people going to go?"
Nest Pasierb, of Our Father's House, wouldn't answer questions about the shelter or its planned closure.
Mayor DiNatale said DHCD is working to increase capacity at an emergency shelter program it's been funding at a former Days Inn in neighboring Leominster since 2021. That program is run by a different nonprofit.
A DHCD spokesperson said the closure of Our Father's House will not result in a loss of shelter capacity in the region. The agency would not otherwise comment on the impending closure, but noted that last year was the first time it required shelter programs statewide to submit competitive bids for contracts.
The mayor said it's his understanding that the state has concerns about the Our Father's House shelter, but he hasn't spoken directly with DHCD officials about the decision not to renew the contract.
"All I do know is the operation wasn't running up to the standards that the state requires — in their mind," DiNatale said.
The shelter has played an important role in Fitchburg over the years, according to the mayor.
"This was a place where people could get out of a situation that they probably didn't, you know, seek," DiNatale said. "So this was always the go-to facility. I mean, they were the only go-to facility in the city."
Police were called to the shelter this week after an altercation between a staff member and an 18-year-old guest. Police filed a report but declined to charge anyone because, the report said, neither party wanted to press charges at the time.
Our Father's House said it will continue to operate its other programs, including transitional housing, a sober house and a food pantry.