Sunday, May 19, 2024

As part of the Unhoused Advocacy Group, a coalition of organizations that work directly with unhoused folks in Cambridge, we submitted to the city on June 30 a detailed proposal requesting American Rescue Plan Act funding to help initiate services and benefits, as well as continue assistance to community members who are unhoused and surviving poverty. We have since reached out Nov. 16, and are once again reaching out. We want to address and highlight the overlaps between the recently released Ad-Hoc Homelessness Report’s recommendations and the requests for funds by the Unhoused Advocacy Group in our letters from last year.

We agree with the report’s assertion that homelessness is a life-and-death crisis. Cambridge can act quickly on the recommendations put forth in the report by investing in the UAG’s requests and investing in housing and health care, which are evidence-based solutions to homelessness and substance use.

We want to elevate our proposal because we believe that the overlap between the recommendations and our requests reveals a consensus among people who are unhoused, service-providers, consultants and city employees that Cambridge on these investments. We implore you to include our requests in the city’s Arpa funding priorities.

First, we want to thank the city for allocating Arpa funds to hire housing navigators, fulfilling a report recommendation. But Cambridge also needs to invest in more affordable-housing units for the housing navigators to be most effective. Report recommendation 3.7 echoes this call: “to significantly increase the number of permanent supportive housing units.”

The UAG has a solution. Using Arpa funds, we want to create 35 additional low-threshold housing subsidies with four staff members for two years. During that time, we want the city to identify a sustained funding source to maintain these subsidies through a rent subsidy program. Our proposal lays out a pathway to ensure that these units are available to the community and sustained beyond the initial funding.

We support the city’s proposal to expand the units at 116 Norfolk St. and provide residents with apartments that better meet their needs. The process to access these units, as well as the policies and the support, should be as low-threshold as possible and supportive of people who have had contact with the criminal legal system and people who use drugs.

We want to reduce the barriers also to access culturally competent and low-barrier health care. The report reveals similar goals under recommendations 1.5 and 2.7 “to increase access to mental health/substance use services” and “to increase street outreach coverage,” respectively. We believe this can be accomplished through our request to establish an integrated low-threshold outreach program similar to that of Boston’s CareZone van.

Adding to our original requests, we also want to emphasize the importance of a 24-hour drop-in space that is low-threshold and not run by the police or the business improvement district. This space should be a meaningful place for people to spend time and access resources and support – beyond bathrooms and showers, storage for belongings and phone-charging stations, although these elements are certainly important.

When we describe a low-threshold option, we mean much more than accommodating couples and people with pets, as defined in the report, although certainly people should be able to access housing with their partners or whomever they feel safe with, and with animals. We are also describing an environment: that does not rely on transactionary relationships or punishment or surveillance, and where personal information is not collected; where police and policing entities (such as private security or business improvement districts) are not present; and where there are no sobriety requirements, and people can be under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. A low-threshold space, as part of housing and health care, works to minimize barriers to access, understands relationship building as key to the health and safety of everyone and provides a wide range of offerings that can be tailored to people’s unique and self-identified needs.

We want to elevate the priorities – an investment in housing and health care – that have been brought forth by people living on the street and in shelter and actualize the recommendations that affirm these priorities.

The Unhoused Advocacy Group, represented by Jim Stewart, First Church Shelter; Cassie Hurd and Rachel Bolton, Material Aid and Advocacy Program; Stephanie Haynes, Cambridge Women’s Center; Cameron Van Fossen, Y2Y Network; Dana Siles, Rescuing Leftover Cuisine; Robin Lutjohann, Faith Lutheran Church & Faith Kitchen; Alice Kidder, Solutions at Work; Summer Shelter Directors, Harvard Square Homeless Shelter; Cassandra Ling, YWCA Cambridge; the Rev. Kate Layzer, Friday Cafe; and Cassidy Ockene, Fenway Health