Town Council President Rapp-Grassetti Holds Closed Door Meeting About Homeless Issue

CCB MEDIA PHOTO Barnstable Town Manager Tom Lynch, right, talks to Michael Sweeney and Nancy Davidson of Housing Assistance Corporation, and Robert Ciolek, left, who vice chairman on the HAC board.

Barnstable Town Manager Tom Lynch, right, talks to Michael Sweeney and Nancy Davidson of Housing Assistance Corporation, and Robert Ciolek, left, who vice chairman on the HAC board.

HYANNIS – The Barnstable Town Council wants to take a leading role in dealing with the issue of a growing number of homeless people in Hyannis. Town Council President Jessica Rapp-Grassetti started the process off with a secret meeting yesterday morning in Barnstable Town Hall between six of the 13 town councilors—just under a majority—and leaders of Housing Assistance Corporation, the agency that runs the NOAH Homeless Shelter.

Barnstable Town Councilor Jennifer Cullum of Hyannis said she requested the meeting as a workshop that would have been open to the public. But, Cullum said, Rapp-Grassetti chose to close the meeting to the press and the public.

The meeting took place Tuesday morning beginning at 10 a.m. in the selectmen’s conference room just outside the town council office on the second floor of Barnstable Town Hall. A note posted on the door stated, “Today’s roundtable discussion is by invite only. It will not be open to the public or the press.”

At about 11:30, people began to file out of the meeting. In addition to the six town councilors, there were, members of town management, top officials from the Barnstable Police Department and the Hyannis Fire Department, two staffers from the state Department of Mental Health, and management and board members from Housing Assistance Corporation.

After the meeting, Rapp-Grassetti said she chose to keep the meeting private because she wanted candor from the participants.

“We wanted a frank discussion. We certainly wanted to keep it limited to just a few councilors,” Rapp-Grassetti said.

She said of the meeting. “It’s not secret. It’s just an in-house discussion. That’s all it is and there are in-house discussions. . . . We’re not trying to hide anything.”

Besides Cullum and Rapp-Grassetti, the following councilors attended the session: Council Vice President Ann B. Canedy of Barnstable Village, Paul Hebert of Centerville, Sara Cushing of Marstons Mills, and Debra Dagwan of Hyannis.

“We wanted to just keep it focused. We didn’t want the press here. We didn’t want to feel like we were targeting Housing Assistance Corporation. Just wanted to have a frank discussion,” Rapp-Grassetti said.

Rapp-Grassetti said Barnstable Police Chief Paul MacDonald is planning to come before the town council in September to present data he has put together on the issue, “so the public can be aware of the financial ramifications of this issue.”

After the meeting, Cullum said, “This is the first of what I hope will be many candid meetings with HAC and their board to find out and quantify the cost of the shelter on the backs of the Hyannis residents and the business owners and to make a better model that is better for the people it serves.”

On why the meeting was kept secret from the public, Cullum said, “Today was a closed door meeting, which I know irritated people, but it was necessary, and in September, we will have a presentation in front of the town council that will put forth the findings that we have.”

Cullum said the meeting was not “secret” but rather, “informational.”

“We needed to get councilors on board with what the model is now, what the movement is toward finding a better shelter model, and where we are in that process,” she said.

But the focus was on Housing Assistance Corporation.

Cullum said the meeting was an opportunity “to candidly talk to the board of HAC and find out what their mission is, what it was, where it’s going, because the fact of the matter is, we have over 200 homeless people in Hyannis that are now camping out on the wellheads, some of them, and it’s threatening our livelihood.”

Cullum said the environmental issue in which some homeless individuals have campsites in the woods near the village water supply is just one aspect of the problem.

But she said that as a taxpayer in Hyannis where the fire department services the NOAH shelter, she wants to know where her tax dollars are going. “It’s about fiscal accountability,” she said.

As to whether there will be additional meetings behind closed doors, Cullum said, “I want to give everybody a chance to bring their best foot forward and work collaboratively and if that takes another meeting behind closed doors, then that’s what it takes.”

Although Cullum said she was not involved in the decision to close the meeting, she spoke to why it was closed.

Cullum said, “It’s more that it’s just such a hot button issue. It’s so sensitive, the topic, and it’s the first time the council has really stepped out in front of it and said, we want to get involved. We want to talk about the bottom dollar. We want to talk about how much this is costing us as a community. We want to talk about how much we’re actually helping the population we’ve sworn to protect. Tempers can flare and feelings can be hurt, but the bottom line is it’s time for the council to lead on this issue and that’s what I’m hoping we’ll do.”

Cullum said that, to her, it is about accountability.

“Next to choosing the town manager, this is one of our most important charges is watching the taxpayer dime and I think the people of Hyannis have a right to know where their money is going,” she said.

Town Councilor Paul Hebert, who is the founder of CHAMP Homes, an agency that houses the homeless, said he felt good about the meeting.

“The compassion around the table was just absolutely incredible. Everybody wants to do the best for all of our people. It’s how to do it so that everybody gets the highest quality services, most economically for the taxpayers and for all the agencies that are participating,” Hebert said.

Working as a community is the key to solving the problem, Hebert said.

“To work from a broad perspective that we’re not in this alone. This is a county issue. This is a state issue,” he said, adding that he believes the community has not reached out enough to the state for help with the issue.

“It’s good that we’re talking, but we also have to start looking at new creative solutions,” he said.
The problem is such that the region is beyond its capacity to deal with the problem of homelessness, Hebert said.

Hebert said he has noticed more homeless in Hyannis lately but he said that is not surprising.

“Hyannis is the hub. It is the center, the main city, the capital of Cape Cod, so this is where they’re going to congregate,” he said.

Hebert said statistics on the number of homeless were presented at the meeting and he does not doubt the veracity of the numbers but, he said, the need is also real. “As one person pointed out, ‘it could be you, it could be me,’” Hebert said.

As to the meeting being closed to the press and the public, Hebert said he felt that was the correct way to handle it.

“We wanted everybody to speak frankly and this was not attacking any individual, any department, anyone. This was just, ‘let’s huddle.’ You wouldn’t have the press at a football game in the huddle. This was the huddle. Let’s put it all on the table and see where we want to go with this. I think it was very refreshing. It was one of the more productive meetings I’ve ever been to, so I’m very, very pleased,” he said.

Robert Ciolek, who is vice chairman on the board of directors of Housing Assistance Corporation, said after the meeting, “I thought people were honest and open and direct about issues. . . .HAC will cooperate with the town council as we have in the past.”

He said HAC also works with a steering committee that was created a few years ago to work on a more permanent solution to deal with homelessness problem in the downtown area.

“It’s the same problem that has been going on for many years, which is a portion of the homeless community causes problems for the business community on Main Street,” he said.

He said HAC has done a number of things over the years to try to reduce the problem. “And we’re going to continue to do that. I think we’ve had some significant improvements but there are still issues and we continue to work on them,” Ciolek said.

Ciolek pointed out that the number of beds at the NOAH shelter have decreased from 60 a few years ago to 50 beds now. The shelter, he said, also has policies in place to restrict the ability of people to use it. As an example, people who have an off-Cape address can only stay at the shelter for one night.

“We’ll give them one night, which is fair and a good human reaction to their problem. But we principally exist to serve Barnstable County. That’s our focus and we’ve been much more rigid in enforcing that in the last few years and that’s helped,” he said.

In addition to Ciolek, David Augustinho, chairman of the HAC board, was at the meeting, as were Michael Sweeney and Nancy Davidson, who are running the agency while CEO Frederic Presbrey, who founded HAC, is on leave.

Ciolek said Barnstable Police Chief Paul MacDonald showed a graph that indicated the location of 72 social service organizations in proximity to Main Street in Hyannis.

Ciolek said, “Certainly I think everyone sitting around the table pretty much shared the same view of the issues. No one’s really fighting the notion that there’s a problem of homelessness on Main Street. I think all the people sitting around the table are appreciative of what the NOAH shelter does for the homeless. But there is a lot of discussion about what is the best future course of action, in terms of the rules for the center and whether or not the center should be relocated. And those are future discussions.”

As to whether he felt there was an advantage for HAC officials in having the meeting closed to the public and press, Ciolek said, “I think we would have said whatever we said publicly. In fact there was nothing said by us that we haven’t said publicly.”

He added, “We’ve been very open and public about the things we’re doing right and the things we need to address.”


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