SMOC takes flak in Worcester, too Thursday, August 18, 2005
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 Boston Globe West
A social services agency that has been on the hot seat in Framingham in recent months has faced even more criticism in Worcester.

The South Middlesex Opportunity Council Inc., which is based in Framingham, last month agreed to a moratorium requested by the city of Worcester on opening new programs.  It will last until a committee finishes studying the effects of the programs on the community.

Jerry Desilets, SMOC's planning director, said the agency agreed to the moratorium as "an indication of our good faith and wanting to develop and maintain a partnership with the city."

Some residents in both Framingham and Worcester have criticized SMOC for expanding without being sufficiently sensitive to neighborhoods in which some of its programs are located.  Both municipalities have established committees to study the effects of social services programs on the communities where they operate.

SMOC provides a range of programs aimed at helping lower-income children and seniors, battered women, and people with substance-abuse or mental-health problems.

Its shelters and homes for people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction have been most controversial, sparking worries among neighbors about increases in crime and decreases in property values.

Worcester's request for a moratorium was precipitated by a controversy over a residential program for women trying to recover from substance abuse addictions, which was proposed for June Street.

State Senator Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat, killed funding for the program after hearing concerns that SMOC has ignored community concerns.

But some criticized her for opposing the facility, which is in a well-to-do area, and not opposing a similar program for a low-income neighborhood.

A consensus emerged that the impact of the programs and their locations should be studied.

The SMOC moratorium in Worcester has drawn some interest in Framingham.

Framingham Selectman Dennis Giombetti said he would like a Worcester city councilor to appear before the Board of Selectmen so officials could compare notes on their dealings with social service agencies.

"I do think it makes sense for us to learn and not reinvent the wheel," he said.

State Representative Vincent Pedone, also a Worcester Democrat, said most programs currently are in a small section of the southern part of the city, including the controversial People in Peril shelter, which is a larger version of Framingham's Common Ground wet shelter.  Wet shelters accommodate people who are still drinking or abusing drugs.

Pedone thinks the programs should be spread to different parts of the city -- and beyond the city limits.  He realizes it may be an uphill battle.  "What we have found out is people want regionalization but just not in their region," he said.  "I don't think anybody in the world wants a wet shelter next to their home, but the reality is, if we don't have wet shelters, the drunks . . . will be sleeping on our back porches."

Desilets, the SMOC planning director, said it is "important to reestablish some good communication between ourselves and community leaders in the city of Worcester.  We're working to do that.  We look forward to meeting with Senator Chandler and other community leaders on our housing plan in the Worcester region."

Pedone argues that SMOC is being singled out because the agency deals with the most difficult populations, but Worcester City Councilor Barbara Haller says the group is being targeted because it can't be trusted.

She said SMOC officials told her they wouldn't locate any more programs in her district, then bought a property to do just that.

"Their lack of contact with city officials and neighborhoods smacks of arrogance to me," said Haller, a member of the study committee, which will also look at whether SMOC and other agencies should be asked to make payments in lieu of taxes on their properties.

She said she was worried about SMOC before the agency came in to manage the People in Peril shelter more than a year ago.  "We cautioned the city about SMOC coming in, because we knew SMOC had tremendous political power, tremendous financial assets, and they would not necessarily partner with the city because they were powerful enough that they didn't have to," said Haller.

SMOC has a $49.5 million annual budget and serves about 20,000 people annually with a staff of 500 people.

Desilets said SMOC and Haller agree that the People in Peril shelter should eventually be closed in favor of other programs.

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