Community Listening Session Urges More Support for CRESS


The Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) held the first of two listening sessions regarding the status of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) program over Zoom on November 29. The forum was recorded and can be viewed here

Twenty-seven people attended, along with CSSJC members Allegra Clark and Debora Ferreira (Co-chairs), Everald Henry, Freke Ete, and Lissette Parades and Pamela Nolan Young (town Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion [DEI]), Jennifer Moyston (Assistant DEI Director), and Asa Stanley-Limler (Americorps intern). Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin interpreters were also present. The second listening session will be held in person at Town Hall on Saturday, December 2 from 10 a.m. to noon. Interpreters will be present there as well.

The CSSJC heard comments from those in attendance. Everyone who spoke supported CRESS. Many of the comments expressed a desire to see the town provide better support for CRESS, including better funding in the next budget.

Orlando Roof asked how CSSJC will influence CRESS in its transition after the resignation of its Director Earl Miller and several CRESS responders. He pointed to the importance of public engagement in the matter. Ferreira responded by discussing the limits of the role of the CSSJJC, since it is not directly involved with the operation of CRESS.

Birdy Newman stated that she feels that getting CRESS synchronized  with the police dispatch center is a huge priority. She said she would like to see the hiring of an anti-racist police chief who is open to shrinking the police department.  She also expressed the hope that everything surrounding Miller’s resignation was just and appropriate, since the reasons for his departure were not made public.

Lydia Spiegel said that it was important that CRESS and DEI have adequate resources available, and that the Town Council and Town Manager prioritize what residents say is important. She said the CRESS and DEI budgets should include money to insure sufficient space and personnel. The space should be accessible and easy to find. The CRESS website says “walk-ins welcome,” but doesn’t give information as to where the office is, she noted. She added that sometimes the door is locked and the people at the desk at the Bangs Center are unaware of CRESS. These factors could be barriers to those trying to access help. CRESS should keep to its original mission of broader public safety, she said, not only mental health, and to take on more of what the police are doing.

Henry thanked those for attending and stressed that the public has the power to advocate to Town Council and the Town Manager to tell them “we are paying attention, and we’ll hold them accountable.”

Liz Mambourquette of Wildflower Alliance explained that Wildflower was brought in by CRESS as an anti-racist/anti-oppressive organization to work with people in emotional distress/extreme states/psychiatric diagnoses/substance use/trauma by sharing lived experiences in a non-punitive, non-carceral way. She said, “We connect with individuals, around school and connections with community. We go into the hospital and connect people with resources. We have four support groups in Amherst: Hearing Voices (for people who have unusual experiences or beliefs), All Recovery (an alternative to 12-step models), alternatives to suicide, and get- togethers through walking (in warm weather) or coffee and cards (in cold weather).” Wildflower participated in the training of CRESS responders and supports CRESS’s work with residents.

Roof noted that there is no mention of Wildflower on the CRESS website, and said that the website overall is lacking in engagement.

Tim McCarthy, Director of Craig’s Doors, a “low threshold shelter” in the region (i.e., a shelter that does not exclude individuals based on such factors as sobriety, poor credit, evictions, or criminal histories), said Craig’s Doors partnered with CRESS on transportation and an initiative to provide free PVTA access for shelter guests.

Pat Ononibaku said, “We need transparency. Why hasn’t Wildflower or Craig’s Doors been more celebrated by the town?  Let’s talk about racism–CSSJC are not the primary power holders in what they are trying to move forward. The town is not fully funding CRESS, and the Resident Oversight Board and BIPOC youth center are not moving forward.” 

Ononibaku  would like CSSJC to have more power to make decisions, possibly through a modification of the town charter at its review in 2024. She said, “We need to show up at council meetings to advocate for the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) recommendations, as council approves the budget.” She added that Black businesses have still not received federal ARPA funds.

Ferreira said that if CRESS isn’t getting dispatch calls, it can’t do what it’s supposed to do. She advised the CSSJC to remind the town that CRESS needs resources and that perhaps the program wouldn’t currently be without leadership if there had been more funding for an assistant director. She added that it is one thing for the council to pass a proclamation against structural racism and another thing to do it. CSSJC is now getting pushback for trying to bring anti-racism to the town. She stressed, “Diversity benefits us all. What would life be like if society were monolithic.”

Ononibaku noted that the town’s ARPA process left out the people who needed the money the most, in favor of already wealthy, powerful white landowners and business owners. In addition, certain restrictions are difficult for people. For example, she said, in order to receive housing assistance, a person must have already received an eviction notice.

Marcie Sclove noted that it is currently budget season, and more should be said about how residents can be involved in budget process. 

Jennifer Moyston said it is helpful when the community speaks out by email or by public comment. She shared the link to the CSSJC survey link.

Henry announced that the Zoning Board of Appeals will be holding an important meeting about the Valley Community Development Corporation’s Ball Lane affordable homeownership project over Zoom on December 21. The meeting will discuss how people can qualify for the new houses and whether local applicants will be given preference.

In addition to the other listening session about CRESS at 10 a.m. on Saturday, December 2 in Town Hall, there is an upcoming series of forums about the proposed Resident Oversight Board to be tasked with hearing complaints about the police. All sessions will be held in hybrid format in the Town Room of Town Hall. These will be on: December 17 at 1 p.m., January 10 at 6 p.m., January 18 at 6 p.m., and January 21.

Allegra Clark assisted in the preparation of this report.

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