Residents of the temporary homeless shelter at the War Memorial Recreational Center have spoken of civil rights and health concerns, while neighbors in Mid-Cambridge were alarmed Sunday by seeing weapons carried outside.

City officials are reconsidering a requirement that new guests at its temporary homeless shelter test negative for the coronavirus, after some of those who care for the homeless said many people living on the street in Cambridge need a place to stay and can’t get tested.

Before opening a converted War Memorial Recreational Center as a shelter April 19, the city arranged for all people staying at the city’s winter warming center and the shelter at 240 Albany St. to be tested for Covid-19 regardless of symptoms. Only those who tested negative would be allowed into the new facility, officials said. A total of 18 people at both facilities were infected, all without symptoms.

“At first it seemed like a fine idea that would help us to see who was negative and who was positive,” Mark McGovern, director of Cambridge Somerville Health Care for the Homeless, told city councillors Monday. (His name and profession are similar to those of councillor Marc McGovern, but they are not related.) “Now, it’s starting to get in the way of people who would like to gain entrance and otherwise – without the negative result of a test – would be able to gain entrance to the shelter, and are now living outside,” McGovern said.

The War Memorial Recreational Center in Mid-Cambridge usually serves as athletic facilities for the community and nearby high school. (Photo: City of Cambridge via Twitter)

McGovern estimated that 70 people who lost their beds when several local shelters closed or cut back need a place to stay. The War Memorial’s field house now houses about 50 people. Bay Cove Human Services, operator of the War Memorial and 240 Albany St. shelters, also wants to see the requirement dropped, senior vice-president of services Nancy Mahan said.

While providers advocated eliminating the condition, some people now staying at the War Memorial spoke during the public comment period of their fear of getting infected from others with no symptoms and pleaded once again for hotel or dorm rooms to protect them.

“The homeless in need deserve safe, private, dignified spaces to keep themselves safe during this extremely dangerous, and I would say scary and uncertain, time,” one man said. “There’s also my belief that any human being regardless of economic status, mental health status or substance abuse status, at the very least is deserving of a hotel or a motel room to isolate themselves from others in order to keep not only themselves healthy, but to stop the spread of this virus to the entire population.”

Another speaker said: “I could be infected with somebody else coming in [who] is actually infected by being with somebody who’s infected, which doesn’t make [any] sense.”

Tests have been hard to come by, and the requirements for taking part have been stringent, though that may be changing.

Some speakers among the homeless population spoke of being kicked out of the shelter for the night because they were complaining to the City Council about how it is run. Police commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. and Mahan said that was a misunderstanding – that the problem was them video calling where others at the shelter could be seen, a violation of their privacy.

Changes discussed

Councillors have debated hotel rooms versus the shelter for a month, and the argument appeared settled Monday with a compromise: calling on the city to find hotel rooms and also install partitions between cots at the War Memorial; testing occupants for the virus at least every two weeks and checking symptoms daily; distributing protective equipment; and respecting guests’ civil liberties, including setting up an area where it was safe to make video calls.

While city staff and other councillors expressed helplessness in finding hotels that would provide rooms, it was noted that there are already two doing so, albeit outside Cambridge. And councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said he had found two operators willing to provide 60 rooms on his own.

The City Council has no power to require any measures on its own; it can only ask the city manager to do so.

As for dropping the testing requirement for new shelter entrants, Chief Public Health Officer Claude Jacob said nothing has changed yet but “we do want to at least work with the shelter providers about a better way to at least access the field house operations.”

Aid for those outside

Meanwhile, councillor Marc McGovern, a social worker, said the city was taking steps to improve conditions for those living outside after a meeting among Mark McGovern, councillor Quinton Zondervan, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, Bard and two representatives of the homeless community.

City workers have turned on outdoor power outlets in Central and Harvard squares and in parks so homeless people can charge their phones, and have compiled a list of locations, councillor Marc McGovern said. They are working on putting portable toilets and handwashing stations in Central and Harvard squares and arranging to have lunch and dinner available seven days a week, instead of the current three. Water bottles will be distributed at meals, he said. The business associations of Central and Harvard squares have given support, and another meeting is set for this week.

Weapon worries neighbors

A different element of the city’s relationship with homeless people came into view Sunday when neighbors of the War Memorial noticed a man holding what appeared to be a weapon on Ellery Street next to the building.

The man was a police supervisor who was transferring a “less-than-lethal weapon” to another police supervisor at a shift change, said city and police department spokesman Jeremy Warnick. The weapon can shoot rubber bullets.

“It can serve as a tool to help police officers safely defuse a critical encounter such as when a person is in a mental health crisis and behaving dangerously, or is a potential threat to himself/herself or others,” Warnick said in an email. “That said, we train our officers to use critical thinking skills and effective communications first, especially in dealing with persons who have a mental illness or other challenging conditions, with the goal of resolving incidents without having to use any weapons, including less-than-lethal devices.”

Warnick said officers don’t carry the weapon; it is stored in a cruiser “where it could be accessed in the event that it would be needed.” From now on, he said, transfers such as the one in the photo “will occur with the less-than-lethal weapon stored inside a duffel bag to mitigate any potential concern from residents.”