Thursday, June 20, 2024

Kevin DeMello and his “running partner,” Boris, aka “Moscow,” roamed the streets yesterday around Central Square.

Both men had been drinking, and it was only 10 a.m. There was no place for them to go. The nearest shelter, on Albany Street, was full the night before and kicks the drunks out in the morning anyway, so they are left to fend for themselves, bum change to put toward the cost of liquor and try to engineer some way to get a meal, shower and take a bathroom break — public bathrooms being one of the biggest problems in the city, even for those who are sober and have homes, city officials say.

DeMello said he and Boris spent the night in a bank foyer by the automated teller. They were awakened by police, who told them to move on.

“It’s tough being homeless in the streets of Cambridge,” DeMello said. “It’s an art form to live on the streets. You have to constantly hustle — even just to find a way to take a shower. The shelter only has so many available beds. You have to get there early — around 4:30 p.m. And here’s the kicker: Because it’s a wet shelter, you have to be drinking to get in!”

At this point, Boris, an immigrant from Russia when that country was still part of the USSR, interrupts his friend to qualify his statement:

“They do have a part in the shelter for sober people.”

The Cambridge and Somerville Program for Alcohol Rehabilitation at 240 Albany St. is the only wet shelter in the city, said Mayor Michael Sullivan, and other shelters for the sober homeless, such as the Salvation Army’s, get grant money administered through the city.

At such shelters, there is paperwork, referrals and other bureaucratic hurdles that, to a drunk on the street, seem like total nonsense when all they need is a bed and shower and something to eat.

As a former prosecutor, Sullivan said, he knows “there are some people who would rather go to jail than a shelter,” because shelter conditions are so abysmal.

DeMello and Boris assured that they would not prefer jail, for the simple reason that there are no women there, and no alcohol.

“But the accommodations are better in prison,” DeMello said, stopping to look for a place to urinate as Boris kept an eye out.

As the election draws near, candidates for City Council say that in going door to door, the nuisance of homeless people is a common complaint among registered voters. The city needs a shelter, say several candidates, and some incumbents agree.

“Central Square — you stand there for an hour and a half, you see everything: public urination, public drunkenness and people screaming to themselves,” challenger Craig Kelly said.

The council, upon the suggestion of incumbent E. Denise Simmons, is holding a roundtable discussion on “homeless and inebriated individuals, sleeping on public benches, particularly in Central Square and Inman Square, disorderly behavior and the possibility of having a day center or other appropriate site for these individuals where they are safe from harm or from harming others.”

The council is expected to set a date for that roundtable discussion tonight, Sullivan said.

It’s important to provide shelter, especially in the cold months when inebriated people are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia, he said.

Simmons said she would go so far as to invite people such as DeMello and Boris to the discussion “if they want to come.”

“People, especially those with small children, feel they can’t walk safely around Central Square,” Simmons said yesterday before campaign stops. “When I walk out of City Hall, I bring change with me, because there are four guys between City Hall and CVS. There is one at 7-Eleven with a missing leg. There is a guy in a wheelchair, and two others even before you get to CVS. Then there are four or five at Libby’s liquor store. They leave Albany Street at 7 a.m. and deposit themselves at Central Square. On a good day there could be as many as 12.”

She said the answer  is not to have police simply shoo them away — because they will end up in some other area or some citizen’s lawn.

Besides, “I don’t want to cast these people out,” she said. “It’s just that there is a lack of a coordinated effort [to provide assistance].”

But if Cambridge were to provide more services to the homeless, it might attract homeless people from other communities.

Kelly said, “We can’t offer services to everyone. It’s a harsh thing to say, but it’s true.

“I don’t know enough about the issue to have a good opinion,” Kelly said. “I don’t know enough about the issue to know what a good idea is.”

That’s why Simmons thinks there should be a roundtable discussion: Nobody really knows what to do.

Challenger Lawrence Adkins said he thinks Cambridge has a great opportunity to become a role model for other cities by tackling the problem head on. He understands the problems of poverty and addiction because he overcame morphine addiction himself after a severe leg injury while training to be a firefighter 20 years ago. But he is not an advocate of investing money in a program that would make Cambridge a giant enabler.

“To get off the streets, they have to get off their addiction,” he said, although for those who are unable to prevail as he has, there should still be some subsidy for basic necessities.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “Cambridge is only six square miles. We should be a model to show that it can be done.”

More: Street people have a code, and a sense of humor