Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Salvation Army on the outskirts of Central Square plans to close its homeless shelter March 31. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Salvation Army homeless shelter in Central Square may shut down March 31 after the organization opted out of controversial grant funding, costing 35 beds in a city where there are 500 people in need on any given night.

The Army’s Cambridge Corps Community Center at 402 Massachusetts Ave. has operated for decades with an annual state grant – in 2022-2023, bringing in more than $700,000.

New conditions in the funding were just not worth adjusting to, even if it meant not having enough money to keep the shelter open, said the Salvation Army branch’s Maj. Douglas Hart.

Hart noted a regulation that says by accepting the money, the shelter could not deny entry based on a criminal record. This concerns managers because the building also offers a day care. “If we had certain level sex offenders, we wouldn’t be able to deny them access to the shelter,” Hart said.

The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2015 that residency restrictions for sex offenders was unconstitutional.

“Low-threshold” rules

Massachusetts will also begin requiring grant recipients to be “low-threshold,” meaning no restrictions on drug use can be asked of residents as long as they are sober and competent enough to independently “cross the threshold” into the building. This goes against the Salvation Army’s goal of minimizing drug access. “The men who are living in the shelter” who are trying to get or stay sober, Hart said, “need an environment that won’t promote behavior to relapse.”

“There’s a place for the low-threshold shelters, and thank goodness we have them,” but for those in the shelter struggling with addiction or other mental health problems, Hart said, the “drama” that people in these conditions could add to the environment would not promote recovery.

A grant document supplied Saturday by the Department of Housing and Community Development that confirms Hart’s description of its terms. Samantha Kaufman, communications director for the department, confirmed that the Salvation Army had opted out of the funding.

City councillor Marc McGovern said he has talked with unhoused people who avoid low-threshold centers because they know it could threaten their own recovery. “There are so many folks who are struggling with substance-use disorders [who] need shelter spaces where they can go. I also get the flip side,” he said.

Fewer beds than needed

The Salvation Army in Central Square is working to get residents into apartments, but Hart says waitlists are long and people experiencing homelessness face a difficult housing market.

A city-run Ad Hoc Working Group on Homelessness led by McGovern reported in January that Cambridge had some 500 homeless people – a figure gathered before the clearing of the “Mass and Cass” area in Boston that led to even higher visibility of the unhoused in Cambridge. The tents there held an estimated 145 people.

With only around 300 beds for the homeless in Cambridge, losing 35 would be pretty significant, McGovern said.

A look for more shelter

Salvation Army managers are in talks with the city to find a new source of revenue and keep the center open, but Hart said that even if a collaboration with Cambridge is possible, the shelter may have to undergo significant changes. In addition to the 35 beds, this location offers emergency assistance, a drop-in day shelter, a community feeding program and other services. “It’s a lot of money,” he said, but managers “remain hopeful in one aspect. At least there’s discussion about it.”

The city was thinking about how to make up the beds somewhere else if the Salvation Army’s shelter shuts down, McGovern said.

The nonprofit Solutions at Work is looking at converting a home at 2222 Massachusetts Ave., North Cambridge – but it would have only around 16 beds. Councillor Quinton Zondervan, who has been involved that project, called it “very unfortunate that the Salvation Army has made this decision to close their shelter. The loss of 40-plus critical beds in Central Square is unthinkable.”

“I’ve made it clear to City Manager [Yi-An] Huang that we need to do everything possible to preserve those beds, but also that we need to expand our overall shelter capacity and not settle for just keeping it level,” Zondervan said.

A public meeting about the city’s unhoused population and an uptick in substance use in Central Square is planned for 2 p.m. Nov. 29 at City Hall, held by the City Council’s Human Services Committee. The committee is led by McGovern.