Friday, May 24, 2024

Dear Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and city councillors,

It’s astonishing to me that Harvard has been allowed to get away with keeping the Smith Campus Center in Harvard Square closed. Before Harvard, in its wisdom, sent all its kids home so they could share the virus with their more vulnerable parents and with communities far and wide, the front lobby of the Smith Center was already occupied daily primarily by people with nowhere else to go. Other establishments, such as the Starbucks, soon closed and the various places unsheltered homeless people rely on for sanctuary or marginal survival quickly vanished. Homeless people are still here. In fact, they may be just about the only people now inhabiting our now-abandoned public spaces! More than ever, they find themselves in need of water, food, bathrooms, power outlets for their phones or computers and respite from a cold day or a rainy afternoon. Ironically, portable toilets set up by the Harvard Square Business Association were ordered closed almost immediately by the Cambridge Health Department. Food distribution is reportedly sporadic, and police officers are uneven in their treatment of this wandering community as they search for places to hide or sleep safely. In the midst of this crisis, police officers report recent instructions from on high to “clear homeless people from ATM lobbies.”

The targeted population are feeling this, but they have nowhere to go! They are not welcome at the new “emergency overflow shelter” at the War Memorial Recreation Center, because they are not “overflow” from any existing shelter, and they have no “evidence” of long-term residence in Cambridge. (Wealthy out-of-towners can buy condos with suitcases of cash and keep them vacant, and no one asks, “How long have you lived in Cambridge?”) Some will not want to go to the shelter. Some don’t like the idea of having to be tested. Some have complaints about or fear of mistreatment by staff members of the contractor, Bay Cove.

The front lobby area at the Smith Campus Center already has all of the amenities unsheltered homeless people need. Building staff are already used to dealing with this so-called “population.” They already have security guards on duty 24/7. With support from the City of Cambridge and public health officials this space – always explicitly intended for public use anyway – can easily be reopened and made available for responsible, well-managed and supervised use. Food could be distributed in an organized, disciplined manner; Health Care for the Homeless staff or others could see people in need of medical care during regular hours each week. Harvard has a $40 billion endowment and could apparently afford to gamely return $9 million to the feds when embarrassed by public exposure for acceptance of government bailout money; can it afford to demonstrate what it can do with and for its community during this public health emergency?

In fact, Harvard has a prestigious school of public health. Why would it not jump at the opportunity to show what it can do in partnership with the City of Cambridge to help those most desperately in need, in a space now empty that’s already well-suited for this purpose? The fact that the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is named after the father of a real estate billionaire who just happens to own at least a dozen major properties in Harvard Square should not go unnoticed. After $350 million for a name change, how about some commitment to real public health, right here?

Let’s make this happen. Soon.

James Williamson, Jackson Place