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Sleeping in the Elements in Provincetown

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

PROVINCETOWN — Mackenzie Perry, the Provincetown community support liaison for the Homeless Prevention Council (HPC), says that she works with 35 to 40 clients per month who are actively struggling with housing insecurity. She says many of her clients are living in substandard conditions or sleeping “on a couch in someone’s home, or they’re really doubled up in a house because they’re not able to find their own rental.”

A handful of her clients are literally unsheltered, meaning they are sleeping “outside in places they are not allowed to sleep, based on town regulations.” She says that a lot of people don’t realize there are unsheltered people in Provincetown because “they don’t see it.”

Perry stresses that most of these unsheltered people are local and have been members of the community for years. This makes them fearful of traveling to the nearest homeless shelter, St. Joseph House in Hyannis, which is over an hour’s drive away from Provincetown, she says, adding, “Going up there to the only shelter can be a very daunting choice. So, I think a lot of people just don’t make that choice. They decide that the alternative is better for them.

A local unsheltered man, who we’ll call Mr. M, said he has lived in Provincetown for over 53 years and has been helped “tremendously” by Perry and the HPC. “The clothes I’m wearing, you know, she made happen,” he said.

Mackenzie Perry, the Provincetown community support liaison for the Homeless Prevention Council, holds walk-in hours at the United Methodist Church at 20 Shank Painter Road on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p,m. (Photo by Georgia Hall)

Mr. M said he lives “in the great outdoors. In the center of town — beachfront property.” He said he lives in Provincetown year-round and has been unsheltered, with a brief respite in the winter of 2022, for two and a half years.

Mr. M was formerly a builder in town, he said, but became unable to work after getting hit by a car. “I didn’t realize I was mortal until then,” he said. “I knew I could continue producing until things started happening post-surgically. I had new discs put in, artificial discs, and they ended up crumbling. So, I started trying to work a job, and all of a sudden, I’m lying on the ground because a little piece hit my sciatic nerve or my spine.”

Mr. M said that the rent on his former home was raised “50 percent by the new owner,” which led to him becoming unsheltered. He is unwilling to travel to the St. Joseph shelter in Hyannis because his medical care and his community are all in Provincetown.

“I’m looking for a tent,” he said. “I need a sleeping bag. The DPW likes to come and take things like sleeping bags and tents and throw them away. People who couch surf are part of this, too.”

Jim Amsel spends the winter in New Hampshire and the summers sleeping outdoors in Provincetown. The police have fined him, and coyotes have “overrun my camp a couple of times,” he said. “It’s very difficult to find a place to crash.” Like Mr. M, Amsel said he is not willing to go to St. Joseph in Hyannis. “There’s a lot of violence on the streets,” he said. “And Provincetown is infinitely safe, physically.”

According to Provincetown’s General Bylaw 13-2-9, it is illegal to “set up and or sleep in a camp or tent, or sleep in the open, or sleep in or on a wheeled vehicle either adapted or not for habitation on public property or on private property not licensed as a campground.” From July 2021 to the present, the Provincetown police have been called 35 times to various incidents regarding homeless encampments.

These encampments are all across Provincetown. In August and September 2022 alone, police report that they were called to remove homeless people camping under a boat behind Arnold’s Bike Shop, in the bus station on Ryder Street, on benches outside town hall, near Dune’s Edge Campground, on the boat F/V Quintessence, behind the Provincetown Theater, and in the woods near “Route 6/inbound across from Howland.”

There are no reliable statistics on the number of homeless people on the Outer Cape. The most recent count by the Cape and Islands Regional Network on Homelessness, from April 15, 2022, reported that the number of homeless people on the whole of Cape Cod had increased from 343 people on Jan. 26, 2021 to 397 on Feb. 22, 2022.

Philip Franchini, chairman of the board of the Soup Kitchen in Provincetown, said, “It’s definitely increased, because I see people that come every day that can’t even afford to live.”

Susan Mazzarella, CEO of the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fall River, which manages multiple shelters including St. Joseph in Hyannis, said, “The number of people who need shelter is much higher than the number of beds we have available. Our capacity is only 45.”

Mazzarella said there is a “need for another homeless shelter on the Outer Cape,” but that her organization, which, in addition to St. Joseph in Hyannis, has shelters in Taunton and New Bedford, has no plans to expand here. “These are people who have had passions and talents and loves and dreams, just like you, just like me,” she added, “and now they are in survival mode.”

State Sen. Julian Cyr said that the homelessness crisis here comes down to a “profoundly screwed-up and insufficient housing market.” A handful of Outer Cape residents hide behind “conservationism, environmentalism, and historic preservation” to block affordable housing, Cyr said, and force people off the Cape or into homelessness.

“Anyone who’s opposing housing needs to think deeply about their morals and their politics,” said Cyr. “They effectively are endorsing the ongoing housing insecurity of thousands of people and the homelessness of hundreds.”

In lieu of immediate solutions, people like Mr. M and Jim Amsel will continue living and sleeping in the outdoors. “I know how you can end your story,” Amsel said, “ ‘Jim Amsel leaves to shower at the gym.’ Because that’s what I’m doing.”

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