The dining space at the War Memorial Recreation Center temporary emergency shelter for the homeless. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter

These unprecedented times have laid bare the fault lines of injustice. Some have called the coronavirus a “great equalizer,” but black Americans are facing disproportionate impact nationwide and in Cambridge, underpaid workers are sacrificing their health to keep our essential services running and our city has yet to provide safe isolation space for those who need it. Despite our vast resources and strong university partnerships, the temporary shelter at the War Memorial Recreation Center fundamentally endangers our unhoused neighbors, who have little choice but to take advantage of its existence. I’ve been pushing Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do more through a petition that already has more than 600 signatures, the majority from people affiliated directly with one of the universities. It isn’t too late for the city, Harvard and MIT to come together in an unprecedented way and truly lead our response to this crisis.

The plan to construct an emergency shelter at the War Memorial has always been concerning, especially with cautionary tales from other cities including the 70-person outbreak at a shelter in San Francisco, or the huge number of unhoused people in Boston who tested positive even though they weren’t displaying symptoms. Congregate shelters cannot possibly protect against asymptomatic spread even in the best circumstances, yet initial plans for the War Memorial didn’t even include universal testing at the door.

After immense pressure, the city relented on the eve of the shelter’s scheduled opening, agreeing to pretest those people entering the facility. Ten percent tested positive for Covid-19, despite no visible symptoms! Despite its limitations, that round of testing saved lives. But now the city is reconsidering requiring a negative test result as a condition of entry, based on guidance issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidance, however, states clearly that a negative test should not be required unless an alternative plan is in place to provide shelter for those who test positive. Since we have such a plan firmly in place, this is a non-issue. We need to protect the unhoused community by providing them with safe space to isolate, and that is ultimately impossible at the War Memorial.

The humane and just solution is to convert available dormitories and hotels into spaces where people can isolate safely during the pandemic. This is not an unprecedented solution: San Francisco has already procured thousands of hotel rooms for unhoused people. A petition to the City Council in support of providing hotel rooms had more than 100 signatures from members of the unhoused community, including many people now living at the War Memorial. We also heard moving testimony directly from shelter clients during public comment. Residents of the shelter have raised concerns about a lack of privacy, insufficient distancing and dangerous breaches of protocol. Meanwhile, while the City Council was told that temperature checks were happening daily, I heard otherwise from someone living at the shelter.

Pressure from the community and advocates was enough to pass a version of the policy order that councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler and I had submitted, calling on the city manager to work with Harvard, MIT, Lesley, and local hotel operators to procure sufficient rooms for this purpose. But short of using eminent domain, the city manager cannot compel anyone to cooperate. And while the state is funding hotel space for unhoused people who test positive for Covid-19, no state funding is available to shelter those who test negative. And we haven’t begun to consider other vulnerable groups who may need isolation space, such as the families of grocery workers. While the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard have graciously set aside isolation space for first responders, our society is also relying on many other types of workers. So it is essential that our university partners recognize the unmet need that still exists in our community and work with the city to protect everyone.

Suffolk University converted one of its dorms into a shelter for the homeless, and Tufts University “transformed their campus” to take on additional hospital demand, MIT and Harvard have merely been reactive. Are they, as it appears, trying to get away with doing the bare minimum? It wasn’t until criticism began to mount that each donated $250,000 to the War Memorial effort, and since then they’ve done very little for the community. Our petition makes three specific asks: Open up all available dormitories, cafeterias and other unused spaces to those in need; donate at least $5 million each to the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund; and focus all available brainpower on the Covid response.

I recognize that the universities face practical limitations to what they can do, and they need to protect students who remain on campus. But given the sheer number of dormitories they control, it must be possible to make space without jeopardizing anyone’s safety. At the very least, the universities should be able to issue public statements saying they have turned over every possible space to the local response. Making a substantial contribution to the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund or helping to finance hotel rooms should not be a problem given their respective multibillion-dollar endowments, and such a contribution could offset a legitimate inability to answer the calls for more space. But the most important thing we need to see from these two universities is a proactive commitment to the type of partnership that they love to brag about having when times are good. We love our universities and we wouldn’t be asking for help if we didn’t truly need it. I know they will do the right thing and respond to our demands. The vulnerable people of this city are counting on it.


Quinton Zondervan is a city councillor.

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