Friday, April 12, 2024

Those of us who live and work in Cambridge take justifiable pride in our city’s commitment to standing up for the marginalized and underprivileged. In Cambridge, our progressivism isn’t just for show – it’s a statement of values. We see it in the battles our residents wage daily for social justice, racial equality and economic fairness. And for more than 40 years, the organization I lead, the North Charles Mental Health Research & Training Foundation, has played its own small part in that great Cambridge story by providing those struggling with substance abuse disorders and mental health issues a second chance at a new life. At North Charles, we provide a helping hand to people at some of the lowest points in their lives – progressive values put into practice.

Sadly, our ability to do so – and Cambridge’s claim to speak for the voiceless – are being challenged. Despite having successfully served so many clients at our Washburn Avenue location in North Cambridge since 2016, North Charles is facing an existential threat as an organization due to a zoning dispute. On April 28, the Board of Zoning Appeal will review our application for a special permit. The city takes the position that our services are not appropriate in this location, but aside from the population we serve, we function essentially the same as any of the other office buildings scattered throughout Cambridge. Critically, North Charles does not conduct any kind of medical treatment – North Charles provides verbal therapy only. If our application for a special permit is denied, North Charles will have to shut down, which would throw hundreds of clients diligently seeking therapy into chaos.

At North Charles, we know that addiction treatment is a sensitive topic, and for that reason we have always sought to be transparent and responsive to our neighbors’ concerns. We stress the importance of being a good neighbor to our patients, and those who cannot abide by the basic tenets of respect for the community are not allowed to return. We have installed security cameras around our premises, meet regularly with and speak to neighborhood residents to address their concerns and have kept the lines of communication open and clear for those with issues or questions.

Most of those reading this will be fortunate enough to never need our services. But it’s far more likely that someone you know, love or trust has struggled with addiction, even if you don’t know it. For them, affordable, compassionate treatment options are few and far between. If the city allows clinics such as ours to be kicked from neighborhood to neighborhood based on the whims of an unrepresentative slice of neighborhood activists, Cambridge would be just like any other community where the wealthy and entrenched can run roughshod over the marginalized. That’s not the Cambridge I know – and that’s why North Charles has achieved so much here over the past 40 years. Let’s not lose what makes Cambridge a special place: It’s where the powerless have rights, respect and a path to success. We respectfully ask that all those who care about standing up for our most vulnerable neighbors contact the Board of Zoning Appeal in support of North Charles and our community of patients and providers.

Gary Houle, executive director of North Charles Inc.