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The Case of One Homeless Person

Great Barrington is a quintessential New England town located almost as far west as can be travelled in Massachusetts without going into Northwestern Connecticut or eastern Upstate New York. The paper industry was once an employer here, but that industry left by fits and starts long ago with just a remnant of it existing now in the Berkshire Hills. The area has now become a fabulously popular tourist destination!

An acquaintance, who will be mentioned later in this article, reports that when he came to Great Barrington in the early part of the decade of the 1970s, following his college graduation, it was a hardscrabble piece of real estate. He recalls going into a popular local bar with the long hair he wore at that time and was subjected to the taunts and stares of bar patrons. But the Berkshires are not primarily known in that respect now and a casual observer today would be hard pressed to see any visible signs of a reactionary bent of any kind. The Berkshires have long been one of many enclaves across the nation where those with sizable amounts of disposable income can come and build large houses among its beautiful rolling hills and picturesque small towns.

The area votes according to the strong liberal presence of the influx of second-home owners from the New York metropolitan area and others from that area who left New York after retiring from professional careers. Another influx to the area came after September 11, 2001, when some who could afford putting distance between themselves and the city, did so. Indeed, the famous Clark Institute houses world-renown art and its location in Williamstown is another example of seeking refuge from the potential of destruction from the threat of war.

Contemporary history recorded yet another influx with Great Barrington’s designation as a best small town by The Smithsonian Magazine (“The 20 Best Small Towns in America of 2012,” April 30, 2012), and that influx has both a real estate and business side to it because of the many restaurants and shopping areas that Great Barrington boasts. The article cites one local resident who says that “Great Barrington is a small, manageable, economically and ethnically mixed town… That’s what I love about it.”

It is a destination of choice now, and many of its local businesses are thriving because of that patronage. This town of about 7,000 residents explodes in the summer and increases substantially again during the fall leaf season and the winter skiing season. It is a Chamber of Commerce dream come true, especially when compared to towns north of Lenox and south of Williamstown, where employment opportunities are hard to come by and the presence of tourist and second-home owners is minuscule compared to many towns south of Pittsfield.

When my wife and I first came to the Berkshires to stay, like so many other second-home owners, seeking refuge from the hurricanes that had battered Florida in 2004 and 2005, we had no idea that we would soon come to be permanent residents of the area.

I can’t remember David Magadini walking the streets of Great Barrington then. It seems that it was sometime later that he first became prominent for his tattered clothing and overflowing shopping cart. I remember saying hello to him whenever I encountered him on the street.

In 2014, an article appeared in the Berkshire Edge about a collage of Magadini by artist John Lawson, which depicted Magadini at the center of items ranging from pansies to butterflies and a bicycle. It would be on display at the Mason Library on Great Barrington’s main street where Magadini would soon wear his welcome thin by allegedly harassing staff and staying beyond the hours that the library remained open.

Magadini has a college degree in the liberal arts and was appointed to a committee working on redrafting zoning laws in the 1980s. “Magadini marks the start of his serious political activity in the community around 2005,” (“David Magadini: Mayor of Main Street,”  The Berkshire Edge, May 18, 2014).

Magadini became homeless around that time—2005—after being evicted from his apartment for reasons that are somewhat unclear.  He moved into night encampments in motels, stores, and the local post office until he wore his “welcome” thin in those places and took up temporary residence in a gazebo behind Great Barrington’s town office building.

He ran for town office in 2009, losing, but garnering 338 votes. He could often be seen at town meetings trying to reason through issues while others seemed to want a more streamlined debate.

Mr. Magadini’s observation that “If citizens want their freedoms, then they have to utilize them…Otherwise, they will be taken away,” would have especially profound meaning on the events which would define his life in the next few years.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts took Mr. Magadini’s case up after he was found guilty of trespassing. His ACLU attorney, Jessie Rossman said:

“Today’s landmark, unanimous ruling has affirmed, in the state high court’s own words that ‘our law does not permit the punishment of the homeless simply for being homeless.’”

“The necessity defense provides a critical safety valve, which allows juries to acquit individuals when they determine that following the law would cause more harm than breaking it.”

“This case provides a quintessential example of an instance where the necessity defense is required. Mr Magadini trespassed in the hallway of mixed-use property, but only to escape bitter cold after being denied access to emergency shelter.”

“Today’s decision confirms that poverty is not a crime in the Commonwealth, reinforces the very purposes of the necessity defense and ensures that people in the Commonwealth have a voice and an opportunity to decide how we as a community are going to address the issue of homelessness.”

David Magadini is now in jail for 30 days and he faces a whole array of trespassing charges from alleged incidents at several local businesses and public facilities. His original acquittal by using the “necessity defense” was rejected by the court when he attempted to use that defense when he sought shelter during warmer weather. He now faces trial on six trespassing violations on four different court dates from February 2017 through March in 2017. A total of 10 charges will be considered against Magadini by the court on “previously remanded” trespassing violations from the Supreme Judicial Court (“Barrington’s homeless man serving 30-day jail sentence,” The Berkshire Record, September 16-22, 2016).

When I wrote earlier this year in The Berkshire Record about Mr. Magadini, I addressed the issue of his being banned from the public library in Great Barrington where library personnel reported that Mr. Magadini became hostile at closing time when he was asked to leave, behaved negatively toward library workers, and was a nuisance to the operation of the library.

What interested me was not that a homeless person had become a nuisance since I have many years of experience working with homeless people, but rather, the response I received about the article when speaking with an acquaintance in Great Barrington who generally holds liberal views about issues of a political, social, and economic nature. He categorized my article as being “provocative” (a compliment) and castigated me for not paying attention to the homeless issue of some teenagers and young adults in the town. In other words, there were more deserving homeless people in the area who needed to have homeless issues addressed and Mr. Magadini was not deserving of support since his presence on the streets amounted to “abuse” when he dealt negatively with some people that he encountered in town. Compare my acquaintance’s response to that of the 2014 article cited above in The Berkshire Edge, where the vast majority of online commenters to the article had a most favorable opinion of Mr. Magadini, including people who identified themselves as living in the immediate geographical area.

A town official, on condition of anonymity, described Mr. Magadini as an affable person who sometimes had a propensity to argue issues before the town’s select board (town council) past the limit some were inclined to listen. He described him as an extremely intelligent person who could argue any point involving town government and the right of free speech and open discussion of important issues. He stated that Mr. Magadini did own property in town, but that it was not habitable.

Mr. Magadini’s lawyer, who is now representing him on the trespassing charges, did not return calls to discuss Mr. Magadini’s legal status or his battles before the court. Attempts to reach the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the attorney from that group who prevailed in Mr. Magadini’s battle before the Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Magadini, also did not respond to requests for an interview about his case.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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