AMHERST — Sometimes people choose to live among the dead.
A portion of the homeless population in Amherst seeks shelter in West Cemetery. Located near the center of town, the town-managed grounds are a popular place for the individuals to congregate, sleep, defecate and leave trash.
“They don’t have access to facilities like you or I,” said Amherst Police Department Officer Bill Laramee. “They don’t have places to change or sleep, so they are using these spaces for all of that.”
West Cemetery is a peaceful landscape. The space is quiet except for the sound of chirping birds, and empty except for the occasional resident passing through as they walk their dog. Pink flowers and tall grass sway in the breeze. Tombstones stand idly as the seasons change around them. It is serene … perfect for those who want to veer away from the public eye.
But the space is not intended to be a hangout, and the APD gets called in about once a month to deal with complaints of loitering, vandalism and consumption of alcohol and drugs. Laramee said the number of complaints varies based on the time of year because warm weather brings more people.
Signs are posted at the Triangle Street entrance saying that it is illegal to be on the property after dark.
“As public servants and it being a town cemetery, we have a duty to go in there and protect the property that’s in there and make sure people aren’t doing anything they shouldn’t be,” said Laramee.
The officer said the issue is one they are very aware of. This summer, the Amherst police teamed up with the Department of Public Works and nearby landlords to address the problem. The coalition removed a row of hedges that defined the space between Smith Street and the cemetery, which was commonly utilized by the homeless population as a living space.
“It’s seemed to become better,” said Laramee. “There’s still people who loiter there. We have a pretty good idea of people’s patterns, though. Who’s going to be there, when they’re going to be there.”
The police department also tries to constantly check up on the population and remind them when they are in a place they should not be, said Laramee.
In addition, officers use all the eyes they can to watch the property. They use surveillance from the Department of Public Works and property owners on Pray Street, and will soon be supported by the presence of the new housing complex One East Pleasant Street.
Alan Snow, the division director for trees and grounds for the Department of Public Works in Amherst, is responsible for the upkeep of the town’s cemeteries: West Cemetery, North Cemetery and South Cemetery.
From what he has seen, the majority of trespassers at West Cemetery are homeless people.
“The trespassing is mostly the people who use this as a place to sleep at night. Sometimes they have fires, they leave a lot of litter, clothing, sometimes spoiled clothing, so that is probably the largest amount of nuisance,” he said.
Snow does a daily drive-through of some of the cemeteries, checking in on the landscape and picking up any trash he spots.
Snow said he finds beer bottles, nips and other trash every day during his clean-up. He also finds sleeping bags and clothes — signs of people using it as a place to stay.
Peer behind one gravestone along the treeline, right where the hedges used to be, and one can see a red sleeping bag accompanied by crumpled up clothes and trash. The collection of items looks like it has been unattended for no more than a few hours.
According to local homeless shelter Craig’s Doors, there were 39 homeless adults in Amherst as of 2015.
Jessie’s House, Craig’s Doors, Craig’s Place, Amherst Survival Center and other resources exist to help the population, so there are local places for people to go.
“There’s plenty of services in this community. The trouble is that some of them don’t want these services,” said Laramee.
Email Amanda at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @amanda_levenson.