Task force making inroads with assisting homeless populations

Feb 21, 2023

Bright red, like a lobster. That’s how Dartmouth Police officer Brandon Baptiste described the hands of a clearly frostbitten man who was found living in the woods off Route 6.

“We ended up taking him to Charlton [Hospital in Fall River],” Baptiste said. “He could barely walk, his feet were swollen.”

Baptiste added that upon the man’s release from Charlton, he was once again at his tent in the woods. Thankfully, he was provided with boots and winter clothing to avoid another bout of frostbite.

This man is just one of what may be hundreds of unhoused residents who members of the town’s Community Service Outreach Team have been connecting with in recent weeks in order to get them back on their feet.

On Feb. 13, the Outreach Team met at Town Hall to provide updates on how they are establishing relationships with the town’s unhoused population. The team is also charged with taking an official count of the number of unhoused people living in Dartmouth.

The count, Council on Aging Director Amy DiPietro said, is being done in conjunction with the Taunton-based mental health center Community Counseling of Bristol County. Having this official count, she added, would be a great benefit to really make those connections with the town's homeless population.

“Now that we know where people are, we can start conversations and relationships with them and put them in contact with the appropriate agencies,” DiPietro said. “Whatever community  support they need.”

Getting the count done, though, has been easier said than done. 

Task Force member and COA director of outreach Matthew Dansereau said there are likely “hundreds” of homeless people in Dartmouth. While it’s easy to spot encampments in the woods, many unhoused residents use their cars as shelter, some stay in abandoned houses, and others couch surf between family and friends.

“The face of homelessness is not what you’d think it is,” he said.

Additionally, the point-in-time count does not include those currently staying in the town’s hotels and motels, as those people are considered “sheltered.”

“And that probably amounts to about a hundred people,” Dansereau said.

An official count should be ready before the end of March, Dansereau said.

So far, members of the outreach team have made contact with residents in a number of encampments in the woods along Route 6. However, their progress has been limited by residents’ willingness to accept help from social workers.

Members of the task force said it’s ultimately up to the individuals whether they want assistance. Some residents are wary about leaving a place that at least offers some familiarity and stability.

“It’s their home, it’s what they know,” said Public Health Nurse Maura Reimer.

Others, like the frostbitten man that officer Baptiste has been connecting with “every other day,” can even get belligerent. In this case, Baptise said his “client” will threaten that he cannot stay with others because he might “kill them.”

Still, Baptiste is hoping the man can get help and stable shelter soon, as the property his tent is on could be sold in the future.

“He’s probably going to get arrested once the company moves in and starts bulldozing,” Baptiste said. “It’s sad, but it’s the truth.”

One way to get homeless residents connected, DiPietro proposed, is to hold breakfasts at a central location twice a week. Doing so would not only provide hungry residents with warm meals, but would also allow them to get in touch with case managers who, DiPietro noted, tend to frequent locations such as soup kitchens.

The plan is currently “just an idea,” but DiPietro said it could always be presented at Town Meeting. Another route would be to partner with an already-established building on Route 6.

As they work on further ways to get homeless residents and organizations in touch, a more immediate goal of the Community Outreach Team is gathering backpacks of supplies and toiletries for distribution.

Signs will be posted in town buildings in the coming days for donations.

“We’re just trying to be a helpful hand,” DiPietro said. “It’s our duty.”